History: Gainesville–forever on the beaten path

Part 1: A community at the intersection of two main roads and a railroad

Gainesville has gone through a lot of changes in the recent past, and grown significantly. We can all appreciate the overpasses and new traffic pattern at the intersection of Routes 66 and 29, and we are all enjoying watching Gainesville develop as a community. In spite of all that has changed, Gainesville has a long and interesting history, which reveals stronger ties to the present then many people realize.

The ‘Middle Grounds’

In earlier times, the village that became known as “Gainesville” actually had two other names, if only briefly. In colonial days, the region was known as the “Middle Grounds,” in reference to its location between Broad Run and Bull Run. In the 1700s, a settlement took root at the intersection of the Shenandoah to Dumfries road, which ran east-west and crossed at Linton’s Ford, and the Alexandria to Orange road, that ran north-south.

In the early 1800s, Samuel Love of Buckland Hall started work on the Warrenton-Alexandria Turnpike. In the hamlet where the turnpike passed through the Middle Grounds, a new stable was erected for stagecoach drivers to switch horses. Other businesses followed, and the settlement became known as New Stable. In 1846, a post office by that name was opened there in Richard Graham’s hotel and store. Mr. Graham also operated a large stable that catered to the drovers and stage drivers and other less pretentious travelers.

“Predictably, Mr. Graham was the first postmaster, and he remained on the job when the village became Beckhamsville, named for Cicero Beckham, fifteen days later,” wrote historian Eugene M. Scheel in Crossroads and Corners: A Tour of the Villages, Towns and Post Offices of Prince William County, Virginia (1996). “That post office was discontinued on the last day of the year.”

The graves of Gainesville tavern owner Richard O. Shirley, his wife Susan and likely some of their six children occupy green space surrounded by a parking lot in a shopping center off Linton Hall Road.

In addition to Graham’s hotel, travelers were accommodated at the tavern run by Richard O. Shirley (1802-1857), and later by his widow, Susan Shirley (1813-1880). The Shirley’s tavern “…was somewhat the prototype of the modern tourist home, in that its guests were restricted to stage passengers and transients,” according to Prince William: The Story of Its Places and Its People (1941).

Shirley family descendant James K. Shirley of Marshall recalls that for years their family cemetery was hidden in a thicket off Linton Hall Road. When a shopping center parking lot was built around it, the cemetery was cleaned up and became a fenced green space.

The coming of the Manassas Gap Railroad in the 1850s was a major turning point for the stagecoach line – which would go out of business – and Beckhamsville, which would get a new name, and a road to prosperity.

The person responsible for bringing the railroad through the village was Thomas Brawner Gaines (1814-1856), who had begun buying up property in the area as early as 1835, and later became a major landowner.

“Thomas Gaines, canny Welshman that he was, and owner of the area where the Manassas Gap Railroad sought right-of-way, insisted that all passenger trains should stop there, and that the place should be called Gainesville,” according to Prince William: The Story of Its Places and Its People.

Actually, “canny Welshman” Thomas Gaines’ family had already been in America for six generations, settling first in New Kent County, Va. in the 1670s. Later generations lived in King and Queen County and Culpeper County before coming to Prince William.

Thomas was married to Mary Cundiff Gaines (1811-1880), and they had three children: Malina Somerville (1836-1913), John Pendleton (1840-1913) and Thomas B.  (1848-1875).

The Gaines family lived in a house built in the 1830s on a tract of land bordered by present-day Catharpin Road and Route 55. Thomas Gaines lived to see the railroad built across his land in 1852 and the village named for his family, but he died young, in 1856.

“By this time, Gainesville had become the leading market town of the Middle Grounds, a shipping point for grain, timber and stock,” according to Mr. Scheel.

Civil War action around Gainesville

In this drawing, Confederate artillery near Brawner’s Farm are firing on Union troops as they move along the Warrenton Turnpike toward Centreville. National Park Civil War Series.

After Confederate forces moved south from Centreville in the spring of 1862, Gainesville was occupied from time-to-time by Union troops. But the actual fighting came to the vicinity of the village in late August 1862, as forces from both sides moved into position for the epic Battle of Second Manassas.

The army of Confederate Gen. T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson had quietly come into Prince William, and on Aug. 26, cut off Union Gen. John Pope’s railroad supply line on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad at Bristow, and the following day, destroyed Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction. After completing the raid, Jackson’s men vanished into the countryside.

On the morning of Aug. 28, 1862, elements of Pope’s army searched the area for Jackson, joined by Union forces under Gen. Franz Siegel, but to no avail. Jackson had left Manassas before dawn, circling north along Bull Run and taking a position along an abandoned railroad cut in a heavily wooded area between Gainesville and Sudley.

Unbeknownst to the Union generals, Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. James Longstreet were moving their armies from the west toward Manassas to back up Jackson, and confronted Union troops under Brig. Gen. James Ricketts at Thoroughfare Gap. A pitched battle took place there on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 1862. The Confederates drove the Union forces out of the Gap, pushing them back toward Haymarket and Gainesville.

“That evening, while Lee and Longstreet were near at hand at Thoroughfare Gap, Jackson brought on the Battle of Gainesville in an effort to prevent Pope from moving eastward, where he would be greatly reinforced by McClellan,” according to Prince William: The Story of Its People and Its Places.

From his protected position, Jackson waited until the middle of a column of McClellan’s troops – moving eastward on the Warrenton Turnpike – was in range. At about 6 p.m., the Confederates opened fire, attacking Wisconsin brigades led by Gen. John Gibbons, and New York brigades under Gen. M. R. Patrick and Gen. Abner Doubleday.

The Battle of Gainesville, also known as the Battle of Brawner’s Farm, lasted two ferocious hours. At one point, the federals launched a counter-attack, and Confederate troops under Gen. Alexander Lawton and Gen. Isaac R. Trimble were called into reinforce Jackson’s men.

“The losses on both sides were frightful. Gibbon’s brigade lost almost 800 killed or wounded. The 2nd Wisconsin lost 276 men out of the 430 who went into the line, and 21 of their wounded were hit at least twice,” according to Robert Thomson in A Legend is Born at Brawner’s Farm: the Iron Brigade at Second Manassas.

“On the other side, in addition to Lawton and Trimble’s horrific losses, the Stonewall brigade had lost 340 men out of 800, a 40 percent casualty rate. In fact, so fierce was the fighting in those two hours along the Warrenton Pike, that one in every three men engaged was hit at least once.”

Confederate losses also included the wounding of one of Jackson’s division commanders. Gen. Richard Ewell was wounded in the left leg, requiring amputation below the knee. He was first cared for at the home of his cousin, Dr. Jesse Ewell at Dunblane, north of Haymarket, before being evacuated further south.

After Second Manassas, Gen. Siegel had his headquarters in Gainesville, occupying the Gaines home for several months. It was there in November 1862 that the court martial hearings were held for the Union soldiers involved in the burning of Haymarket on the night of Nov. 3-4, 1862 (See Haymarket Lifestyle, Nov. 2011)

The Gaines family remained in Gainesville throughout the Civil War, but their home “…served as headquarters for Union general officers and staff, including Gen. Rufus King in the spring of 1862, Gen. Franz Sigel in the autumn of 1862, and Col. S.S. Carroll in early 1863,” according to a study conducted by Wetlands Studies and Solutions Inc. of Gainesville. “The dwelling and core area of the site was also used as a Union military hospital for five weeks in the fall of 1863, during the Bristoe campaign.”

Post-bellum years at Gainesville

After the war ended, Prince William County, like the rest of the South, was under federal control. Slavery was gone, and gradually a “new normal” was established. Prince William County was divided into six magisterial districts, including the Gainesville District that included most of the northern end of the county.

The county’s public school system was established in 1870, following the passage of Virginia’s Public Education Act. Gainesville School District originally consisted of six schools for white students (Buckland, Catharpin, Gainesville, Hickory Grove, Waterfall and Thoroughfare/white), and three schools for black students (Antioch, Macrae and Thoroughfare/black).

Four more schools were built in the Gainesville District in the 1880s: Mill Park, Haymarket and Piney Branch for white students, and North Fork for black students. With the exception of the Gainesville Elementary School, which closed in the early 1900s due to falling enrollment, these one-room schools would serve the district until they were consolidated in the 1920s.

“Maintaining adequate enrollment was a long-standing problem at Gainesville in its early years,” wrote Lucy Walsh Phinney in Yesterday’s Schools. “The School Board even agreed to offer premiums of $5 to white teachers who achieved the highest enrollment for the 1893-94 school year.” In 1904, the unused Gainesville Elementary School building was sold for $150, and subsequently turned into a residence.

The Gaines family built a racetrack on their property that was remembered as one of the best in Virginia. Sometime in the early 1870s, the original Gaines home was destroyed by fire, and a new house erected near the site.

Mrs. Gaines died in 1880, and Miss Somerville Gaines became mistress of the property. In 1883, Miss Gaines gave members of the Gainesville Methodist Episcopal Church, South an acre of land, which included the Gaines family cemetery, as the site for their church – a rare example of the graveyard existing before the church. Work started on the church in 1884, and was completed in 1886.

Miss Somerville Gaines gave land, including the Gaines family cemetery, to the congregation of the Gainesville Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1883. The church was built there in 1884-86.

In the years to come, the Gainesville Methodist Church grew, and the graveyard was expanded as the final resting place for many of its members.

Mrs. Evelyn Lunsford, a long-time member of the church, recalled that when Miss Gaines gave the additional land so that the cemetery could be expanded, it was understood that only members of the Gaines family could be buried in the original section on the east side of the church, and everyone else buried in the new section on the west side.

Space in the church was limited, and even with the addition of a fellowship hall in the 1950s, it was still too small. In 2005, the congregation moved to a new building on Milestone Court, which was consecrated on April 30, 2006. The church has retained ownership of the cemetery and the old church building.

A regrettable incident

A double killing occurred in Gainesville early on the morning of March 18, 1892 that was remembered by residents of the area for many years – even though no one from Prince William County was involved. Two accused murderers from Fauquier County were being brought to the train station in Gainesville when they were overtaken by an angry mob, and lynched.

Lee R. Heflin of Stafford and Joseph Dye of Calverton were accused of killing Mrs. James W. Kines, a young widow, and her three children at their home near Calverton on the night of Nov. 9, 1891. The alleged motive was a robbery, which cost four innocent lives and yielded the killers only $70.

Investigators soon narrowed the search to Dye, who lived on a nearby farm, and Heflin, who had started working at the Dye farm just the day before the murders. The suspects were incarcerated in the county jail in Warrenton, and indicted by a grand jury.

However, when the cases went to trial, legal maneuvering by the suspects’ attorneys caused a furor in the community. For a while Heflin and Dye were held in the jail at Alexandria, returning to Warrenton for trial. When one of the defense attorneys faked illness in order to slow the proceedings, people were enraged. Fauquier Jailor C.M. Pattie was concerned about violence, and arranged for the suspects to be taken to Alexandria by train. But he first had to get them to the station at Gainesville.

Late in the night of March 17, 1892, Heflin and Dye were hidden in a wagon, and accompanied by two guards, departed Warrenton. About an hour after they left, an angry mob stormed the jail. Learning that the prisoners were gone, they made fast up the turnpike, catching up with the wagon just south of Gainesville, near the home of Haywood Triplett. The guards were overwhelmed, and the mob hanged Dye from one tree, and Heflin from another. To be certain that the men were dead, they shot Dye eight times, and Heflin four times.

Their mission accomplished, the mob returned to Warrenton down the Greenwich Road. The guards fled to Haymarket, where they spent the night. The bodies were found the next morning, and residents of Gainesville were horrified and demanded a full investigation. A grand jury was empanelled in April, but no one was ever charged.

Years later, a tree that stood in the median of U.S. 29 in front of the present-day CVS pharmacy in Gainesville was known as “the hanging tree.”


The Manadier Sanitarium

Sometime before 1908, Miss Somerville Gaines sold the family home and 34 acres to Mrs. Margaret Mayan. According to the VHLC survey, shortly after completing the transaction Mrs. Mayan donated the property to a charitable and benevolent association called the Manadier Sanitarium for use as a hospital.

Trustees of the association some of the most influential members of the Haymarket and Gainesville communities: William M. Jordan, C.E. Keyser, George G. Tyler, Macon Cave, and Col. Newland T. DePauw. Rev. Cary Gamble, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Haymarket, was the ex-officio chairman.

Terms of the donation specified that if the sanitarium failed, the property would revert to the Protestant Episcopal Education Society, and that “…the property could never be used as a place for gaming or gaming devices, or the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors.”

The venture never got off the ground, and the property was returned to Mrs. Mayan. She sold the house and land to Haymarket physician Dr. Wade C. Payne in 1914.

Miss Somerville Gaines and her brother John P. Gaines both died in 1913, the last two family members of their generation. Miss Gaines was buried in the family graveyard, and John in Occoquan.

Part 2, to be published in December, deals with Gainesville in the 20th century and the impact of the most recent changes.


A unique home, long gone

In 1908, Miss Somerville Gaines sold the 1875 Gaines home near the intersection of Route 55 and Catharpin Road to Mrs. Margaret Mayan, who wanted to see it used as a sanitarium.

In 1981, a survey of the 1875 Gaines house was conducted for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, with photographs of the property taken by former Prince William County Architectural Historian Frances Jones. Following are details from the survey of the property, identified as File 76-152.

“The Gaines house is a large Victorian, T-shaped, rambling, 2½-story frame house. There is probably no other house like it in Prince William County. The main house probably contains about 15 rooms. There is a small, two-story addition attached to the main house, which contains three or more rooms. The steeply pitched gable roof, plain bracketed cornice and half-timber ‘stick-style’ gable ends are some of the house’s more striking architectural and stylistic features.

“A one-story open porch wraps around part of the front and west side of the house, and the front façade features a 10-foot wide bay window on the first floor, and a ‘porthole’ window on the second floor. The house is covered with channeled siding, and has double cornerboards. A small guest house, or possibly a separate kitchen, is located on the house’s northwest corner.”

The survey also mentions other outbuildings, including “… a play house or office, with a cruciform roof, a shed with a gable roof, a cinder block barn with a gambrel roof, and a 30-ft. by 70-ft. wooden barn.” It was noted that no farming was being done on the land, that the structures on the property were in very dilapidated condition, and “…the owners have no intention of repairing it, hoping instead to develop the 19-acre tract that the house sits on.”

The Gaines property passed through several hands during the 20th century, the last several years as an investment property. James Shirley, who has lived in the area since 1970, recalls seeing the house when it still could have been saved, and wishes that it had been.

Today, all of the buildings are gone, and the site is part of a 99-acre tract between I-66 and U.S. 29 assembled by Lerner Enterprises of Rockville, Md. for future development.

According to the Lerner Web site, “planning and design is in progress” for a project called “The Grove at Gainesville.” Included in the plan are over one million square feet of retail, entertainment, hotel and office space in an “Open-Air Main Street Setting.”

This article was originally published in the Haymarket Lifestyle Magazine’s July 2013 issue, and has been adapted for this issue.

Read part 2 of this series, Rapid Change Comes to Gainesville-Old family farms and businesses disappear.

John Toler
About John Toler 18 Articles
Broad Run resident John Toler is the co-author of the recent Fauquier County and Town of Warrenton history books, and has contributed numerous newspaper and magazine articles focused on the history of Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties.


  1. Just relocating to the Gainesville area after retiring from McLean,VA. Having lived in the greater Northern
    VA. area for almost 30 years, we now have time to investigate the historic details of the Gainesville where we have purchased our retirement home. Fascinating to say the least!

    • Yes very interesting article i too have a interest in the history of gainesville va area my grandmother was a gaines

  2. My second great-grandmother, Octavia Somerville “Summer” Davis Brady, was named after Somerville Gaines. Summer Brady and her husband, Albert Marion Brady, are buried our old family cemetery at the edge of the Virginia Oaks Golf Course. I hope to have an obelisk installed with all names of family members buried there.

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