New Park at Gilberts Corner

The land at Gilberts Corner in Loudoun County that PEC saved from development in 2009 is now part of a public park at a gateway to one of America’s most historic landscapes.

In May, PEC seized the opportunity to purchase at foreclosure a 68-acre property that was slated for development, near the northeast corner of the landmark intersection of Rte. 50 and Rte. 15. Earlier, in 2004, PEC provided a loan to the Mount Zion Church Preservation Association to purchase an adjoining 86-acre tract, which was also owned by a developer.

Recently, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) purchased the land owned by the Mount Zion Church Preservation Association and arranged to lease the land owned by PEC, creating the new Gilberts Corner Regional Park-over 150 acres where people will be able to connect with local history and explore trails through the woods and open fields. The park includes the antebellum Mt. Zion Church, just across the road, on the south side of Rt. 50.

At this site in 1864, over 100 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during a run-in with Col. John S. Mosby’s cavalry. Mosby’s raiders were supporting a Confederate advance on Washington, D.C. that was intended to draw Union troops away from the siege of Petersburg. Union troops under Major William Forbes encountered Mosby’s men at Gilberts Corner, where the Confederates had stationed their one cannon in the center of the road.

Paul Gilbert, the Executive Director of NVRPA, writes, in an article posted on the organization’s blog: “The fighting lasted about an hour, and in the course of the hand-to-hand combat that ensued, Mosby and Forbes fought each other with Forbes cutting through Mosby’s clothes with his sword. In the end, Forbes’ horse was shot by Mosby and pinned his leg, causing him to be captured. The Union line broke and fell into a disorganized retreat, with some of the Union Cavalry being chased for miles.”

Mr. Gilbert’s article concludes: “The addition of public parkland at Gilbert’s Corner, where this skirmish took place…will help round out the system of historic parks in Loudoun owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, that preserve today the important places and events of the Civil War in Loudoun County and help to make this area a center for historical tourism.”

The new parkland also overlaps the site of the 1863 Battle of Aldie, where Union and Confederate armies fought up and down area roads, seeking control of a pass through the Blue Ridge. The park is a stone’s throw from a major Presidential estate, Oak Hill, the home of James Monroe-a privately owned property of more than 1,000 acres that lies at the northwest corner of the intersection. The park is also just south on Rte. 15 from Oatlands, a plantation established in the early 1800s, now a National Trust Historic Site with the mansion and gardens open to the public.

The Gilberts Corner intersection itself is an important gateway to the Journey through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area that stretches from Gettysburg to Monticello.

Mike Kane, PEC’s Land Conservation Officer for Loudoun County says, “If you’re driving west on Rte. 50, Gilberts Corner is the point where the landscape changes and a sense of relief overtakes you as the pace slows and the landscape’s beauty and history becomes apparent.”

For most, this gateway experience would be lost if Gilberts Corner became a massive interchange bulging from a four-lane highway-but that’s what VDOT had planned for Gilberts Corner in the 1990s. The new traffic circles at Gilberts Corner and nearby intersections are the fruition of a traffic calming project that PEC advocated for 15 years as an alternative to four-laning Rte. 50 for 20 miles from Lenah to Paris. These roundabouts and other traffic calming measures in villages along Rte. 50 improve safety and traffic flow, cost far less than road-widening and enhance the character of the road instead of transforming it into a four-lane highway.

PEC has also been active in helping citizens to conserve Loudoun’s historic rural land. Gilberts Corner lies within the Goose Creek watershed, which has one of the highest concentrations of privately conserved land anywhere in America. Over 35% of the watershed is protected, including 8,000 acres of public land and 80,000 acres under conservation easement.

The creation of Gilberts Corner Regional Park helps to further conserve this exceptional landscape, while opening more opportunities for people to connect with it.

NVRPA plans to start making the park more accessible this spring, by adding a pull-off area for parking, interpretive signs and a Civil War cannon to mark the entrance. The next step will be to develop some trails through the woods and open fields. A more ambitious long-term vision, Mr. Gilbert says, is to connect the new park with other historic resources by way of longer trails that would link Mount Zion Church to the Village of Aldie and Beverly Mill to Aldie Mill, through the Bull Run Mountains.

Plans for the park will be formed through the cooperation of partners including PEC, Mount Zion Preservation Association and the Journey through Hallowed Ground Partnership.

Mr. Gilbert says, “PEC was an invaluable partner in the creation of Gilberts Corner Regional Park. PEC’s acquisition of land and lease of that land for a park, as well as their assistance in the transactions at Gilberts Corner, was a wonderful service to the public.”

Opportunities in a Crisis
The economic downturn gave us a second chance to save this land at Gilberts Corner, purchasing it from a developer at foreclosure; now it’s a park. Such dramatic reversals occurred throughout the Piedmont this year. Biscuit Run-the largest development ever approved in Albemarle County, with 3,100 homes-will become a state park. Willow Run in Culpeper County, where an extravagant three million square foot retail hub was planned, went into conservation easement. And a 268-acre property near the Town of Orange, which was owned by a developer, was transferred as a gift to PEC, who will ensure that the productive farmland is protected forever.