Rippon Lodge is perhaps the oldest, and yet is probably the least known, of all colonial country houses still standing in Northern Virginia. It was built about 1725 by Richard Black-burn of Ripon, the old cathedral town in England, which in that day was spelled in the same way as its namesake in Virginia. In the burying ground, a short distance from the house, there are many family tombs; among them is that of the builder, who died in 1757, and upon whose monument, in quaint old English style, is a long legend telling the story of his military commands and public service in the Colony. It was Colonel Thomas Blackburn, the son of Richard, who was the contemporary and comrade-in-arms of George Washington. Indeed, it is said in Hayden’s Virginia Genealogy that Richard Blackburn was an architect, or builder, and that he designed Mount Vernon for Lawrence Washington. There is an old mahogany stand and draftingboard at Rippon Lodge, and it is possibly the one upon which these plans were drawn.
In the time of Colonel Thomas Blackburn the families at Mount Vernon and Rippon Lodge were on intimate terms, and George Washington in his diaries speaks frequently of his visits with Mrs. Washington and others, to the Blackburns, often staying overnight. A daughter of Colonel Thomas Black-burn (Ann Blackburn) married Bushrod Washington; and a granddaughter ( Jane Charlotte Blackburn) married John Augustine Washington. These ladies of Rippon Lodge thus became, each in turn, the mistress of Mount Vernon, and sleep in the mausoleum there.
The old estate of Rippon Lodge originally covered many thousands of acres, of which there is now left about one thou-sand in the present tract. The main body of the house, as it stands today, with its steep, Georgian roof, its huge chimneys, its panelled hall and dining room, its wide board floors and witches’ doors, is as perfect as it was more than two centuries ago. To this has been added some conscientious restorations and some improvements for room and comfort.
Rippon Lodge is steeped in early American history. The first military company, in anticipation of the Revolution, was organized in Prince William County, and the leader in the movement, as well as the head of the troops, was Thomas Blackburn of Rippon Lodge. Later, all the volunteer companies in Virginia were put under the command of the then Colonel George Washington, and this post he held until he was elected commander-in-chief of all the American forces. In the old books, magazines, newspapers and letters of colonial days, now in public and private collections, there are many stories of Rippon Lodge-stories of duels and adventures in the wilderness; of the stone guardhouse, with its iron-grilled windows, which still stands to recall the time when Colonel Blackburn quartered a regiment of Continental troops on the place; of the “tea bushes” still growing on the lawn, which are a living reminder of the protest in all the American colonies against the tax on tea, when a number of Virginia settlers imported a hardy plant from Bermuda, which was used as a substitute.
There are found about the place, even to this day, many relics of the long ago. The old King’s Highway, sometimes called the Potomac Path, was the earliest coach and post road between Northern and Southern Virginia. The wide, deep-rutted imprint of this road, now floored with fern and lined with laurel, like a cut upon the face of nature that has healed, may still be traced for two or three miles across the present lands of Rippon Lodge. Up and down this highway rode Washington and Lafayette and Rochambeau, and in their coaches all the gentry of the neighborhood-the Masons, the Scotts, the Lees, the Grahams, the Fairfaxes, the Graysons; and also, in more modest fashion, trudged Parson Weems, peddling his books. So along this road came the victorious troops after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, camping on the way and celebrating the independence of the colonies. It was in the woods near this route, and perhaps at some old camping site, that there was recently found an ancient Hessian bayonet. There has been discovered at Rippon Lodge an old brick tunnel, leading from the cellar to a neighboring ravine, filled in and grown over with trees for many generations, but recalling the days of some needed means of escape from marauding Indians; or perhaps it was a subterranean connection between the two houses which once stood at Rippon Lodge, as shown by the sketches made in 1796, by Benjamin H. Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol at Washington, who was a visitor there. In this tunnel, recently restored, an English cannon ball was found-mute evidence of the days when British gunboats came up the Potomac River. The sketches of Latrobe also show a picture of the Potomac much like the view from the lawn at Rippon Lodge today, except for the sailing ships riding at anchor in Neabsco Bay, which were there to carry tobacco to England, or to bring household goods from the mother country to colonial homes.
Rippon Lodge is a modest farmhouse compared with the palatial homes on the James, the Rappahannock, the Potomac and in the Shenandoah Valley; but its antiquity, its unique history, and the spell of a forgotten past that hovers like a ghost about the old house, the long-neglected gardens and the dimmed pathways through the woods and to the water front, have placed a magic seal upon it which must always delight the lover of colonial days.