THE FOURTH BATTLE OF MANASSAS
How much of historic America, how much of our national heritage,
will be left for future generations? And what does it say
about us, of our values, of our regard for those who will follow, not
to say those who went before us, if we as citizens stand by while
others destroy historic America--knock it down, pave it over, blot
it out--in the name of so-called progress and corporate profits?
In the fall of 1993, the Walt Disney Company stunned Virginians
with plans to build its next resort on undeveloped fields thirty-five miles
west of Washington, D.C., in the northern Virginia Piedmont. The announcement
sent shock waves through the region that reverberated across the nation, the
opening salvo for one of the most publicized preservation battles since the
Penn Central Transportation Company sued New York City over the fate of
Grand Central Terminal. That famous case became a referendum with national
implications governing the protection of historic landmark buildings. The
Disney episode became a national referendum on the protection of historic
places from urban sprawl.
If communities are shaped by the choices they make or by the choices that
are made for them, then the northern Virginia Piedmont is a classic case in
point--on both counts. In 1993, people far removed from the Piedmont
descended on it to formulate plans that would change it forever. Few if any
residents of the Piedmont were even aware of their plans, let alone helped
shape them. Over the course of a year, however, people who lived in this
unique corner of the country, with the help of others who believed that they,
too, had a stake in the fight, decided they wanted to make another choice. In
a matter of months, the episode became a battle joined by people across the
country, wherever communities are being transformed by careless decisions
about development and the use of land.
In the years since Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, Disney's
amusement park business had grown from a single eighty-five-acre park to
four resorts on three continents: the original Disneyland Park; Walt Disney
World, in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando; Disneyland Paris, operated in
France by Euro Disney; and a financial stake in Tokyo Disneyland, in Japan.
In 1993, the company tried to develop yet another destination in North
America to complement its resorts in Florida and California, this time in
northern Virginia, on the rim of the country's fourth largest metropolitan area,
at the southern tip of the heavily populated northeastern United States.
Washington, D.C., is one of the top ten travel destinations in the United
States. Almost 20 million people visited the area in 1993, and while some came
for business and left quickly, 13 million visitors were Americans who came
strictly on vacation and stayed longer, making travel and tourism a major
regional industry worth $4 billion to the area's economy each year. After
resolving to tap this vital market, the Disney Company decided that Dulles
International Airport, in suburban northern Virginia, would be its gateway.
East of the airport, near Washington, was a busy region, dense with
highways, giant shopping malls, and the towering, sprawling office complexes
of the new Virginia suburbs. Land to the west was still home to Old Virginia,
large farms overlaid with two-lane roads that ran past colonial-era mills and
homes, historic brick courthouses, and small, locally owned stores clustered
along the main streets of scenic villages and towns. In choosing a site for its
next major tourist destination in the United States, the Disney Company
leapfrogged the New Virginia suburbs and settled on a pristine spot eight
miles beyond the edge of urban sprawl, in a rural town called Haymarket,
Haymarket was a quiet place--only one intersection had a traffic light.
Only one street was home to buildings in any significant number, and all of
them were small. The narrow town hall, painted white, didn't look much
different from a church, also painted white, down the street. The surrounding
area was remote and relatively undeveloped, a virtually virgin landscape, as
Anaheim had first appeared to the builders of Disneyland forty years before.
The local terrain was dominated by hill farms, where people raised horses,
beef, and hay on rolling pastures and a butcher advertised his services,
"Custom Slaughtering," on a small sign poked in his yard. Here, the Disney
Company could develop a locale from scratch.
Of the 3,000 or so acres Disney secured, 380 of them had been a farm
picked up at an auction after a foreclosure. The core of the site, about 2,000
acres, was a former plantation, where an antebellum mansion built in 1826 had
burned in 1973. Before Disney arrived, speculators had planned to develop
the spot into a residential subdivision before a recession ended their
plans. The property was put up for sale, but until Disney's agents arrived,
there had been no takers. From the Disney Company's perspective, the
location was ideal. Dulles International Airport was just twenty miles away.
Tourists could arrive from Washington by driving west on Interstate 66.
Access aside, the location is a beautiful spot of rolling fields nestled beside
the Bull Run Mountains, where a creek named Little Bull Run flows toward the
Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of two famous Civil War battles, only
four miles away. In almost every direction the location is surrounded by the
natural and historic landmarks of Virginia's northern Piedmont.
The Piedmont, a landscape of rolling hills that rise from the coastal plains
of the Virginia Tidewater and stretch westward to the Blue Ridge Mountains,
remains one of the most scenic and historic regions in the United States.
Thirty-eight of Virginia's fifty-three scenic byways pass through the northern
Piedmont. Of all the miles of rivers declared scenic in Virginia, almost half of
them run through here, too. A short drive north of the Disney site on a
two-lane scenic byway is Leesburg, a colonial-era town recognized by the
National Register of Historic Places as "one of the best preserved, most
picturesque communities in Virginia." Between Leesburg and the Disney site
are other notable historic places, including Middleburg, the heart of hunt
country, where wealthy landowners raised horses on well-kept fields and
hounds hunted foxes on lands where a band of Confederate cavalrymen,
Mosby's Rangers, once raided Federal supplies. Some of the surrounding
hillsides were planted with orchards and even vineyards for a burgeoning
regional wine industry.
For residents of the more densely populated coast, the Piedmont was still
the gateway to the wooded mountains of the Blue Ridge and the verdant
Shenandoah Valley. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson
described the scenery at the Piedmont's northwestern corner. "The passage
of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is one of the most stupendous scenes
in nature," wrote Jefferson, who claimed that the Piedmont's mountains,
rivers, and plains presented a landscape "as placid and delightful as it is wild
and tremendous." Jefferson was so moved by what he saw in the Piedmont
that he claimed, "This scene is worth the voyage across the Atlantic." A
friend of Jefferson's in France, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, identified
the region as an ideal location to settle his family as they prepared to emigrate
to America. According to du Pont, the scenery was gorgeous and land could
be purchased inexpensively before inevitable roads increased its value.
Historians have called the Piedmont "the Cradle of Democracy," for all of
its connections to so many of the founding fathers. George Washington
surveyed land here in the mid-eighteenth century and mapped out some of the
Piedmont's early settlements. Jefferson made his home here, as did other
notable Virginians of his day, including Patrick Henry, the revolutionary
fire-brand who became Virginia's first elected governor; James Madison,
father of the Constitution; President James Monroe; and John Marshall, the
influential chief justice of the young Supreme Court of the United States.
Today, their homes are stopping points for the hundreds of thousands of
visitors attracted by the Piedmont's history.
Virginia's northern Piedmont was also the crossroads of troop movements
during the Civil War. This was the strategically critical piece of land between
the capital in Washington at one end and the capital of the Confederacy in
Richmond at the other, and some of the most significant Civil War battles
occurred on Piedmont soil. At Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and
Manassas, nearly thirty thousand Americans lost their lives. At the First
Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run as it was known on the Federal side, Union
forces suffered their first serious defeat of the war in 1861. Here, South
Carolina general Barnard Bee saw Virginia general Thomas J. Jackson and
shouted, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally around the
Virginians!" Another Virginian, Robert E. Lee, solidified his reputation as a
general here, too, when his troops handed the Union another humiliating
defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas in the following year.
Soldiers who traversed the Piedmont in wartime could not help pausing to
admire it, as their journals, letters, and diaries attest. While marching his
troops toward Gettysburg in 1863, Robert E. Lee stopped near Brandy Station
to view the Piedmont's open fields and hills. "The country here looks very
green and pretty not withstanding the ravages of war," wrote Lee. "What a
beautiful world God in His loving kindness to His creatures has given us.
What a shame that men endowed with the reason and knowledge of right
should mar His gifts." On the Union side, a soldier from Minnesota described
his regiment's excitement when they crossed the Potomac River from
Maryland and "set their unhallowed feet upon the sacred soil of `Ole
Virginny.'" Even by then, Virginia's history was legendary. When the same
soldier marched through Haymarket, site of the future Disney development,
en route to neighboring Thoroughfare Gap, he wrote of seeing "much
magnificent scenery. If I were a free man I should enjoy a whole day's ramble
in this vicinity."
Historian C. Van Woodward has written about the Piedmont, "This part of
northern Virginia has soaked up more of the blood, sweat and tears of
American history than any other area of the country. It has bred more
founding fathers, inspired more soaring hopes and ideals and witnessed more
triumphs and failures, victories and lost causes than any other place in the
country. If such a past can render a soil `sacred,' this sliver is the perfect
The Walt Disney Company saw this historic sliver of northern Virginia as
the perfect venue for an amusement park playing up historical themes. As one
Disney executive said, "The site itself is part of the show." Scott Stahley, a
real estate scout from Disney's corporate headquarters, said that what
impressed him most about the place was "how romantic it feels." As
Disney executives discovered the region's history, however, Virginians knew
nothing of their plans. Site selection was a secretive process that one
company executive described as "two years of painstaking analysis and
exhaustive search." Though Disney signed up some of the top local firms in
real estate, land-use law, and public relations early, the company kept its
project hidden from the public for as long as possible.
As rumors of Disney's activity in northern Virginia finally began to spread,
Disney's spokesmen held off queries from reporters while company
executives briefed only a handful of Virginia's elected officials in private.
Some officials were never consulted beforehand. John Kapp, the mayor of
Haymarket, said he hadn't heard a word. John Milliken, Virginia's
secretary of transportation, whose department oversaw highways that would
critically affect Disney's plans, said, "We had no advance notice." What
little anyone knew about the project came from drops of information that
leaked through the cracks of closed doors. Some sources told local papers
that Disney's project in Virginia would be small, a theme park no larger than
"the size of the original Disneyland in Anaheim," or about eighty-five acres.
Others said it would be no larger than Kings Dominion, an amusement park
operated near Richmond by Disney competitor Paramount Communications.
The precise location of the enterprise remained a mystery. Realtors
speculated that Disney would build in western Prince William County, in a
remote area beyond the edge of urban sprawl. Jeff Griffin, president of Prince
William 66 Partnership, a group formed to promote development along the
Interstate 66 corridor, said, "It's a gorgeous setting out in that area," a
landscape of "rolling terrain and so forth." Griffin predicted that a Disney
development would be good for the area: "They do very high quality
projects." And the prospects for local developers would be enormous, he
speculated. "There would be normal collateral development," Griffin said,
"hotels, retail, things of that sort." One source said that Disney had already
gained control over enough land to build its fantasy land, expand in the
future, and provide the site with a substantial buffer of green acres to isolate
it from inevitable roadside development that would sprout outside its borders.
"They're not shopping around," another source told the Richmond Times
Dispatch. "They're going to do it." "Brace yourself," said Virginia's senior
United States senator, John Warner, "Virginia's getting a big one."
The Walt Disney Company announced its plans at a November press
conference attended by the outgoing governor, Douglas Wilder, and his successor,
George Allen, who had been elected only the week before. Allen, in fact,
had just returned to Virginia from a postelection vacation with his family.
They had gone to Florida, to Walt Disney World, where Allen spoke with
Disney chairman and chief executive officer Michael Eisner about the project.
The announcement was also attended by a cadre of local officials who
helped the company unveil plans for a multifaceted real estate development
centered around an amusement park the company called "Disney's America."
Disney officials told the audience that unlike Disneyland or Walt Disney
World, major tourist destinations, the Virginia development would tap into the
existing regional tourist market. A typical family outing to Disney's America
would be a day trip. Disney spokesmen played down any impact the park
would have on the surrounding region. They said visitors would travel
together in large groups, via minivans, station wagons, and buses, limiting the
extra traffic on local roads. The company said visitors would travel to
Disney's America from Washington in the morning as area residents
commuted to work in the other direction. The company refused to confirm
attendance projections, but credible estimates put the number at thirty
thousand visitors a day on average, up to 6 million visitors a year. Compared
to popular attractions in Washington, that meant Disney's America would
draw five times as many visitors in a single year as the Lincoln Memorial, four
times as many as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, three times as many as the
Smithsonian Institution's Castle Building, and twice as many visitors as the
National Zoo. But unlike Orlando or Anaheim, company officials said,
Disney's America would not need an abundance of hotel rooms. The
Washington region had sixty-five thousand rooms already, and most visitors,
they said, would drive back to Washington at the end of the day to stay in
hotels there. In the initial stages of park development, they predicted, a
modest hotel with 150 rooms would do.
These first projections would seem misleading, or naive at best, after a few
days of good questioning by the local press. But on the day of the initial
announcement, icy skepticism about the scope of the project melted in the
warmth of Disney's multimedia displays, which promoted the main attraction,
the amusement park itself. The park was to be designed around themes in
American history. As first announced, antique steam trains would take
passengers on a ride through a simulated nineteenth-century town. A
white-water raft ride would recall the Lewis and Clark expedition. "Presidents
Square" would honor the nation's founding fathers. A "Civil War fort" would
showcase skirmishes between troops in blue and gray, while around the
"fort," replicas of the ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimac,
would clash in water. A miniature version of Ellis Island would interpret the
tidal wave of late-nineteenth-century European immigration. A simulated
depression-era "Family Farm" was planned, so "visitors may see how the
land is harvested." A make-believe "State Fair" would celebrate "small town
America at play with a nostalgic re-creation." A "sprawling airfield" would
display vintage aircraft from the two world wars and serve as a stage for air
shows and for fireworks at night. And a fabricated American Indian village
would depict "a complex and sophisticated life lived in harmony with the land
long before . . . European settlers pushed it to the edge of extinction."
The legendary entertainment company's proposal to build an amusement
park based on American history in one of the most historic regions of the
country immediately triggered a confrontation that pitted the trademarks of
popular culture against the landmarks of American history.
Promotional material for Disney's America contained ironies that
opponents would exploit for months, particularly the simulation of authentic
historic towns, farms, and battlefields that Virginia already possessed. Few
states in the nation, if any, boasted of their history as much as the
Commonwealth of Virginia. A visitor's map published by the Allen
administration, for instance, showed a picture of the new governor and
scenes of Virginia's colonial-, revolutionary-, and Civil War-era sites under
the headline "Places to See." Richmond, Virginia's capital, promoted itself in a
brochure as "Pure Virginia. Nothing artificial." The explanation for this was
simple. Tourists contributed $9 billion to the state's economy each year.
When the Division of Tourism of Virginia's Department of Economic
Development conducted a study to see what drew tourists to the state, 73
percent of first-time visitors said history was the reason, more than twice the
number who came for shopping centers, three times those who came for
beaches, and four times the total who came for theme parks operated by
Disney's competitors. Visitors in search of historic sites, meanwhile,
spent more than twice as much in Virginia as other tourists. Unquestionably,
Virginia's historic sites were economic assets worth protecting and
In choosing historic Virginia as the location for a theme park based on
history, the Disney Company saw a natural fit. If Disney officials expected
any conflict at all, it was an old criticism that had haunted their productions
before: blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, sentimentalizing
history for popular entertainment. In a telephone interview with Washington
Post reporters, Michael Eisner said, "We are going to be sensitive, but we
will not be showing the absolute propaganda of the country." Eisner warned
that some exhibits would be "painful, disturbing, and agonizing." For
instance, he said, "We will show the Civil War with all its racial conflict."
"You will not see Mickey Mouse walking around in Civil War reenactments,
because he doesn't belong there," said Bob Weis, vice president of Disney's
creative division, the team of designers called "imagineers" by Disney employees.
"This is not a Pollyanna view of America," he said. "We want to make you a Civil
War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what
it was like to escape through the underground railroad."
In reply, African American opponents quickly said they didn't want to see
the subject of slavery exploited in a theme park. In Thoroughfare, a tiny
village next to the site where Disney intended to construct slave-life
exhibitions, the grandchildren of slaves still farmed land where their ancestors
had settled after gaining freedom following the Civil War. Some of these
neighbors said they didn't want to see their family heritage demeaned by
Disney displays or their local history bulldozed by the Disney development.
Outside the area, a black history group formed to oppose the Disney project.
One of the leaders said she didn't want to see "miniature slave ships" sold in
the theme park's souvenir stands.
"We're not going to put anyone in chains," Eisner responded. The
project's manager, Mark Pacala, said Disney's America would send guests
home happy and feeling good about their country. "We don't want people to
come out with a dour face," he said. "It is going to be fun with a capital
The growing flap over Disney's "imagineering" became the least of the
company's worries. The more critical brewing controversy was not about how
Disney would tell its stories, but where. The real debate was over the
location, and Disney was stubborn about the spot. Spokesmen said the
Piedmont was the company's only choice for Disney's America; the company
had no contingency locations. "This is an idea that only works in this
location," said Peter Rummell, president of Disney's development company.
"If you take it to Kansas, it doesn't work."
Disney was drawn to the Piedmont for the regional travel market and the
accessible open land in a scenic spot. But the company also needed public
officials who would favor a proposal of this scale. It found them in Prince
William County at the fringes of the Washington suburbs, too remote to
attract all of downtown's riches--its highest-paying employers and its
diverse tax base--but close enough to want its fair share.
Prince William had no trouble attracting new residents. A development
boom in the 1980s raised the county's population by 63 percent, from an
estimated 144,703 people when the decade began to 235,766 by the end of
1993. Manassas had doubled its population from 1980 to 1992, earning a spot
in a U.S. Census list of the twenty-five fastest growing places in
America. Over the next thirty years, the county was projected to
maintain its rapid growth and nearly double its population again. Many new
residents came for the abundant supply of relatively affordable new homes in
one of the most expensive housing markets in America. In terms of housing
costs, Prince William was a bargain, but the hidden costs were high. The county
had the lowest ratio of jobs to residents of any county in northern Virginia.
Over 60 percent of its residents commuted to jobs out of the county. The
average commute took thirty-six minutes, or the annual equivalent of
spending seven and a half work weeks traveling between home and work.
Though two interstate highways linked the county to the metropolitan core,
traveling on them during rush hours was stressful. Traffic was a political hot
potato. Kathleen Seefeldt, who chaired the county's board of supervisors,
said, "No issue is more important in my community than the ability to have a
decent job that does not require spending three hours a day in an
The only local issue that rivaled traffic was taxes. After the county became
a sprawling bedroom community of residential subdivisions, its tax base had
grown unbalanced. Five years earlier, Seefeldt had warned that "an explosion
of growth" had placed "fiscal stress" on county taxpayers. She explained that
each new homeowner paid only about sixty cents in property taxes for every
dollar he or she got back from the county in the form of new roads, schools,
and extended water and sewer services. "Every time we build a house,
we lose money," said County Executive James Mullen. The county's
fiscal headache wouldn't go away. Schools were crowded, and the only cost
in the county budget growing faster than education was debt
service--interest payments on money the county had to borrow to service
mile after mile of houses, roads, strip malls, and parking lots spread out over
wide, expensive distances.
"It is extremely important to achieve a balance between jobs and housing
in any community," Seefeldt said. "Too many jobs result in sterile office parks
that are abandoned at nightfall. Too many houses can result in bedroom
communities without a central focus." Indeed, across the northern Virginia
suburbs were plenty of half-empty places like the ones Seefeldt described:
office complexes surrounded by parking lots, shopping malls with larger
parking lots, and clusters of new houses that real estate marketers called
"townhomes." But around these new "townhomes," there were rarely any
towns to speak of, just more parking lots. In this sprawling built environment,
few, if any, new communities had that healthy "balance" Seefeldt described,
where neighborhoods, stores, schools, apartments, and offices were placed in
proximity. Even the new state-of-the-art Bull Run Regional Library was built
off a busy highway, tucked behind a strip mall.
Prince William County was responsible for its zoning regulations, which
had invited the costly sprawl, but it was also an incidental victim of
geography. Counties adjacent to Washington enjoyed metropolitan
prosperity; counties further west enjoyed rural tranquillity. But Prince
William County taxpayers, wedged in between, were squeezed. They paid the
highest county property tax rate in Virginia, and, still, their county was
desperate for more
revenue. Most county officials, who represented the densely populated I-95
corridor in the eastern end of the county, felt that the only realistic solution
to their fiscal woes was to attract high-value development and build their way
out of it, even at the risk of angering residents in the county's sparsely
populated western end along I-66. The largest source of county tax revenue,
after all, was Potomac Mills Mall, America's largest regional outlet mall when
it opened in 1985. In a single year, the number of shoppers at the mall
exceeded the total number of visitors who went to Washington, making this
suburban shopping center the number one visitor destination in the nation's
capital region. When the Disney Company proposed its $650 million project,
the company seemed to offer county officials everything they had hoped for
and more, all in a single package. "I have wanted so badly for six years to
land something," said County Supervisor Hilda Barg. "I can say that I really
got the fish that will reduce your taxes. And we have landed a big one."
Business leaders in western Prince William were no less enthusiastic. Hotel
and store owners foresaw an influx of new customers. Anyone in real estate
understood that a dominant market had blossomed overnight. Congressmen
spoke glowingly about the benefits of tourism, a "clean industry" that
attracted travelers who spent money in an area and then went home, placing
few burdens on local taxpayers. Mike Vanderpool, a former president of the
local chamber of commerce and an attorney for developers with interests in
the region, encouraged business owners to rally behind Disney's America.
This was Prince William's turn to be "the Center of It All," just as Kissimmee,
Florida, had become when Walt Disney World arrived in town. Local business
leaders formed a "Welcome Disney Committee." Another group called itself
"Patriots for Disney." Other supporters formed yet another group and called
themselves "Friends of the Mouse." The Potomac News, the daily paper for
eastern Prince William County, responded with a huge front-page headline,
"Disney YES," and an editorial entitled "Zippity Doo Dah!" Vanderpool said it
was time to think about commercial flights landing at the small Manassas
regional airport. The airport's manager said, "You get a lot of saliva in your
mouth just thinking how good it would taste." News of Disney's America
lifted the morale of anyone who resented living in the shadows of high-rise
development closer to Washington. "All of a sudden, people in northern
Virginia don't think Haymarket and Prince William County are that far away,"
said local business leader Cal Hackeman. Jeff Griffin, the developer
promoting the I-66 corridor, said, "Prince William County isn't going to be
thought of as a poor stepchild anymore."
Disney executives had hoped county opinion leaders would favor their
project, and to a great extent, they did. Yet, after two years and millions of
dollars' worth of research and planning, the Walt Disney Company either
failed to anticipate, or seriously underestimated, the greatest obstacle to its
plans. The very qualities that made the Piedmont site so attractive for
Disney's America--its historical associations, its tranquil natural beauty, and
the ability to buffer the site from encroaching sprawl--were exactly the same
qualities that made the place special to so many others. As many saw it, the
Disney development threatened to erase those cherished qualities.
Similar emotions have greeted cataclysmic development proposals in
almost every state in the nation. Citizens of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and
Petoskey, Michigan, have watched with dread as developers have threatened
to displace their fragile historic downtowns as well as the natural landscapes
at their borders. According to the American Farmland Trust, urban sprawl
costs America 1 million acres of farmland each year, an area equivalent in size
to the entire state of Delaware. Over ten recent years, Michigan, a state with
some of the most productive orchards in the nation, lost 854,000 acres of
farmland to development, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Author
and journalist Tom Hylton has reported that since the 1950s, sprawl in
Pennsylvania has consumed an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode
Island combined, while the state's historic cities and towns have lost between
one-quarter and one-half of their populations. In all of these places,
thousands of decisions are made about the development of communities each
day, most of them behind closed doors. In most places, concerned citizens fail
to notice the consequences of these decisions until it is too late to do
anything about them.