Suburban Archaeology 1: On the Trail of Keene's Mill

Springfield Travel Blog

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Keene's Mill historical marker

Old Keene Mill Road is the main thoroughfare through Springfield, VA, linking Central Springfield and I-395 to West Springfield and Burke. Always interested in the local history of communities where I have lived, I'd wondered what "Keene Mill" was. Had there been a flour mill named that? If so, where had it been located? Like all old roads in Fairfax County, Old Keene Mill Road dates back to colonial times as farm-to-market wagon road. Investigation borought to light intersting pieces of Springfield history.

As you may have read in my earlier blog entries, the community name Springfield dates back only to the 1850s and the coming of the railway. There were only farms and plantations before that in what was the Truro Parish area of Fairfax County.

Trailhead
A historical marker told part of the story of Keene's Mill. It noted that a mill had been established near there by one James Keene about 1796. But exactly where? Old Keene Mill Road crosses Pohick Creek at one point. An 1878 map shows a "Keene S[aw] M[ill]" where the road between Burke and what is now West Springfield crossed the creek. The area is now county park land. Was there anything to see? On a nice March Sunday afternoon, I decided to go for a hike and find out.

I parked on Hunstman Blvd. in the Shannon Station subdivision. From there, I entered the forested Pohick Stream Park. The trees wered still bare from winter, but that provided visibilty. It wasn't long before I encountered a long trough. It was definitely man-made, with a high earthen wall.

19th century millrace
This had to be one of the millraces described on the historical marker. Though filled with leaves and fallen trees, I followed it in the direction of Pohick Creek. It reminded me of defensive earthworks I'd seen at Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields. Perhaps the same rural engineering skills that built mills were put to use in wartime for a different purpose? As it neared Pohick Creek, the old millrace seemed to divide. Perhaps that was the two millraces described by local historians who speculated there had been both a gristmill and a sawmill on the site. Whoever owned the operation would have had quite a buisness, grinding wheat and grain to flour and meal for area farmers to sell and cutting logs for lumber and cordwood fuel. 

I noticed that there was a flat area above the confluence of the millraces.

19th century millrace
Going up there, I found asphalt pavement under the piles of leaves.  That had to be the original alignment of Keen Mill Road! (I had learned that Old Keene Mill Road was realigned and widened to four lanes after Hurricane Agnes washed out the Pohick Creek bridge in 1971.) So, this would have roughly been where the road ran in the 19th century. I had to be close to the mill site. No photos of Keene's Mill appear to exist. Surviving mills like George Washington's Grist Mill in Mt. Vernon (see my review) and Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls were of stone construction. Photos show some Fairfax County mills were built of wood. No evidence of any structure was in existence. After all, it was 130 years since the map indicating the mill's location was published.
Confluence of two old millraces
 Back at the confluence of the millraces, I did note a few pices of what appeared to be cut stone scattered about. Pieces of asphalt from the old road had washed into the millrace. These were not asphalt and were not concrete. Could they be pieces of the mill? Or, were they just ordinary rip-rap from road construction? It made for interesting speculation. There are probably nails, coins, and other artifiacts under the leaves and soft ground waiting to be discovered.

The story of Keene's Mill doesn't end there. During my research, I'd found an article in one of the Fairfax Historical Society's Yearbooks entitled Murder at the Mill. The mill had come into the posession of William Keene in 1849.  (James Keen who built it was his great-uncle.) Things were rough and tumble in the area in the 1850s.

Old alignment of Keene Mill Road above the millraces
One night in 1855, William Keene stabbed Lewis Hall. (He was part of the Hall family of nearby Hall's Corner that I've written about.) Both were said to have been drunk. Hall died of his stab wound and Keene was arrested and charged with first degree murder in what was probably the most sensational case in pre-Civil War Springfield. William Keene had to sell the mill to pay for his legal expenses. (Interesting that it had been out of the Keene family for over twenty years, but was still called Keene's Mill in 1878. Place names do persist.) Keene was convicted and sent to State Penitentiary in Richmond. The Civil War began shortly thereafter and it is not known what became of William Keene after that.
Cut stones scattered above the millraces
The 1860 US Census shows him as an inmate in the penitentiary and an appeal to the Governor of Virginia commuted his sentence to second degree murder. Did he die in prison? Join the Confederate army? Escape during the fall of Richmond in 1865? No one has yet found out.

The Keene name lives on in Springfield in two street names and the historical marker. Less than a mile from the mill site is the Keene Family Cemetery. I've also visited there. It's now in the middle of a townhouse development, but was once on the farm of James Keene, a cousin of William. The townhouse community association looks after it.

ellen32 says:
Where is the Keene Family cemetary?
Are the Halls of Springfield any relation to the Halls of Hall's Hill in North Arlington?
Posted on: Mar 26, 2016
missandrea81 says:
Great research and great review Andy. :)
Posted on: Mar 29, 2009
bernard69 says:
great review Andrew!
Posted on: Mar 29, 2009
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Keenes Mill historical marker
Keene's Mill historical marker
Trailhead
Trailhead
19th century millrace
19th century millrace
19th century millrace
19th century millrace
Confluence of two old millraces
Confluence of two old millraces
Old alignment of Keene Mill Road a…
Old alignment of Keene Mill Road …
Cut stones scattered above the mil…
Cut stones scattered above the mi…
Pohick Creek. Old Keene Mill Road …
Pohick Creek. Old Keene Mill Road…
Pohick Creek
Pohick Creek
Keene Family Cemetery
Keene Family Cemetery
Gravestones at Keene Family Cemete…
Gravestones at Keene Family Cemet…
Springfield
photo by: Zagnut66