Army Bases

Fort Belvoir, Virginia

The U.S. Army began utilizing the Belvoir peninsula as an engineer training facility in 1915. The facility evolved from the U.S. Army's Engineer School, which was established during the late nineteenth century in Fort Totten, New York. In 1901, the school relocated from Fort Totten to the Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair) in Washington D.C. Although the Washington Barracks provided ample classroom facilities, the installation lacked adequate field training areas and rifle ranges. As a result, the school was forced to seek additional training space.

In 1915, the Engineer School began conducting summer training exercises 'on a government-owned parcel in Virginia, located approximately 15 miles south of Washington along the Potomac River. The federal government had acquired the 1,500-acre tract on the Belvoir peninsula in 1910 from the Otterback family, for development of a children's reformatory.

However, local community groups and patriotic organizations such as the daughters of the American Revolution, opposed the establishment of a reformatory on ground so closely associated with George Washington and the other "founding fathers" of the country. Thus, the reformatory never materialized.

In 1912, Congress transferred the Otterback property to the War Department, following an Army request to use the land as a training site. This site was chosen by the Engineer School, its adequate water supply, and its challenging terrain. Here, engineer students conducted rifle practice and trained in building pontoon bridges.

The development of Camp A.A. Humphreys transformed the agrarian neighborhood around Accotink and Woodlawn; one historian described the establishment of the camps "the second invasion by the armed forces" of the Woodlawn neighborhood. Many residents were displaced from their homes and farms, sometimes unwillingly. Many of the members of the Woodlawn Quaker Meeting who lost properties moved elsewhere, and as a result, the long-standing Quaker influence in the Woodlawn neighborhood declined.

Through purchase or condemnation, the Army acquired additional acreage during 1917 and 1918. Fourteen farms on the peninsula between Accotink and Pohick Creeks were transformed into target ranges; two large parcels along Dogue Creek were taken through government condemnation proceedings; and the purchase of a 3,300 acre parcel that today comprises most of the North Post and Davison Army Airfield was in process by 1918.

Transportation systems and utilities also were improved. Previously, the most direct access to the Belvoir Peninsula had been by boat down the Potomac from Washington-hardly the most efficient way of supplying the camp with building materials and other necessities. Road systems therefore were improved: the unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months and a plank road was constructed that linked the camp to the Washington-Richmond Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed. Building these transportation systems not only facilitated deliveries to the camp, but provided valuable engineer training experience for troops sent to the battle lines in Europe.

To accommodate the 20,000 men anticipated at the camp, plans called for the construction of 790 temporary wood-frame buildings. Quarters were filled as soon as they were completed. A consistent supply of fresh water was assured through the construction of a dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant on the site of the former Accotink Mill. Within only four months of the start of construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys was in full swing. Several schools operated at Camp A.A. Humphreys during World War 1.

One of the most vital components of the camp was the Engineer Replacement and Training Camp, where enlisted men were trained. Camp A.A. Humphreys was also active in training officers during the war. The Engineer Officers' Training Center operated at Camp Humphreys until February 1919. Its program was designed to select the most qualified enlisted men for training as junior officers. Another school located at Camp A.A. Humphreys was the Army Gas School, necessitated by the advent of chemical warfare. The school provided officer training in gas and flame thrower operations. The School of Military Mining taught trench warfare and field fortification techniques. The schools conducted most of their training on the South Post, although parts of the southwest peninsula were used for rifle ranges. By the end of the war, over 50,000 enlisted men and 4,900 officer candidates had been trained at Camp A.A. Humphreys.

Unlike many temporary Army installations established during World War I and closed following the war, Camp A.A. Humphreys remained active and continued to expand. By 1919 the camp had grown from its original 1,500 acres to approximately 6,000 acres.

The Army's commitment to the post was demonstrated by the official relocation of the Engineer School from the Washington Barracks to Camp A.A. Humphreys in 1919. Although the school had been utilizing the area as a training site since 1915, it was not until 1919 that the camp became the "home" of the Corps of Engineers. Following the Engineer School's move, Camp A.A. Humphreys was designated a permanent post in 1922 and renamed Fort Humphreys. Throughout the inter-war years, the Engineer School trained new engineer officers in the technical requirements of their duties. Programs offered included forestry, road and railroad construction, camouflage, mining, surveying, pontoon construction, photography, printing, and cooking.

Another addition to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was the Engineer Board, which relocated to Fort Humphreys in 1924. The Engineer Board, forerunner of the Belvoir Research, Development and Engineering Center, was founded in 1870 to test engineering equipment. At Fort Humphreys, the Board's mission was to develop specialized engineering equipment. Its establishment marked the beginning of the installation's role in military research and development. During the inter-war period, the Board developed numerous items to make troops more effective and more comfortable in combat. Among the many innovations were assault boats, portable steel bridges, mine detectors, and even portable bathing units.

One of the more dramatic changes to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was its physical transformation. By the 1920s, the installation's original temporary buildings had deteriorated, as had most of the Army's other temporary training cantonments that were hastily built during World War 1.

In 1926, the Army initiated an ambitious, nation-wide building program designed to address growing concerns over the deplorable living conditions reported at the nation's military installations. The program aimed to replace World War I temporary wooden buildings with permanent buildings. The program was financed through the sale of 43 military installations; money received from the sales was deposited into a special fund designated the "Military Post Construction Fund."

The Army's nationwide re-building program resulted in a massive construction effort that involved both military and civilian architects, planners, and designers. Standardized architectural plans were developed by the Army's Quartermaster Corps to carry out the construction program effectively and economically. These plans included designs that adapted to local climatic conditions and that reflected local architectural history. The Georgian Colonial Revival style, characterized by red brick facades, strict symmetry, and pedimented central pavilions, was used most often in the eastern areas of the country, where English settlements were clustered in the colonial period. The Spanish Colonial Revival style, characterized by stucco walls and clay tile roofs, was favored for posts in the south and the west, in areas of traditional Spanish influence.

Many of Fort Belvoir's most important buildings were constructed as a result of the nation wide rebuilding program. Most of Fort Humphreys' temporary wood-frame World War I buildings were demolished; in their place, new permanent masonry construction buildings were erected. At Belvoir, the new buildings included officers' housing, barracks, and a hospital, all designed in a Georgian Colonial Revival style.

Another development at the post during the inter-war period was a renewed interest in the history of the area, particularly of William Fairfax's Belvoir Plantation. During the 1920s, two lieutenants at the post, Karrick and Kohloss, surveyed and described the ruins of the old Fairfax mansion, and attempted to reconstruct its historic appearance and layout. At about the same time, Fairfax Harrison, a locally-prominent historian and President of the Southern Railroad, sponsored the construction of the monument obelisk that today marks the graves of William Fairfax and his wife. In 1931, Colonel Edward. H. Schulz, Commanding Officer of Fort Humphreys, initiated the first archeological project at the plantation ruins. Vegetation was cleared, and excavation revealed the foundations of the large mansion, its outbuildings, and the outline of an elaborate walled flower garden with two garden houses that overlooked the Potomac River from the 100-foot bluff.

The outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 and Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific motivated the United States government to begin preparing for possible involvement in the expanding world conflict. As in World War I, Army engineers would be needed to provide critical support to Allied forces by building roads and bridges, clearing obstacles, providing maps, and engineering demolitions. To prepare engineers adequately for their wartime role, Fort Belvoir once again became one of the Army's primary engineer training sites.

Fort Belvoir again expanded. To accommodate the influx of draftees after 1940, an additional 3,000 acres north of U.S. Route I were acquired to make room for the new Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC). As in the past, numerous local families were displaced from their small farms by this acquisition. It was during this phase of Belvoir's expansion that the small historic African American community at Woodlawn disintegrated. The Woodlawn Methodist Church and many residents moved north to the community of Gum Springs along U.S. Route 1.

In March 1941, the ERTC facility began to provide basic military engineer training to draftees. Originally, the ERTC program was designed as a 12 week course, but its duration was shortened to eight weeks early in 1942, when the demand for troops escalated dramatically after Pearl Harbor. A similar curriculum was offered at the ERTCs at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and later at Camp Abbot in Oregon. Recruits were schooled in reconnaissance, unit coordination, road and obstacle construction, and demolition. After mid-1942, Belvoir began training engineer specialists in operating construction machinery, carpentry, drafting, and surveying. Instruction also was offered for such non-engineering specialties as truck driving, cooking, and baking. As the war progressed and new weapons were developed, specialized courses in weapons operation were added to the curriculum. Engineers learned about tanks and their uses, flamethrowers, and anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war in 1945, the ERTC at Fort Belvoir had trained roughly 147,000 engineer troops.

Following World War II, the engineer training role at Fort Belvoir waxed and waned according to wartime needs. In 1945, both the Engineer Replacement Training Center and the Engineer Officer Candidate School were phased out; however, both programs were reactivated in the1950s during the Korean Conflict, and again in the1960s with the Vietnam build-up. Both conflicts required a reassessment of the installation's training function and methods, and a revamping of its physical plant.

For example, by 1950, many World War II temporary barracks had been adapted for other uses. When new enlistees and draftees arrived on the post, they had to be housed in six-man tents while the barracks buildings were reconverted back to their original function. The types of training offered also reflected shifts in warfare technology and philosophy; a Close Combat Range was installed on the peninsula south of the village of Accotink, and on North Post, a Chemical/Biological/RadiologicaI School was instituted. In general, emphasis at Fort Belvoir in the 1950s began shifting from training to research and development. Throughout the decade, the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories (ERDL) were involved in experimentation with a wide range of technical military applications. The laboratories developed and tested new techniques for electrical power generation; camouflage and deception; methods of handling materials and fuel; bridging; and mine detection. They experimented with portable map copying machines, fungicides for use in tropical environments, and heavy earth-moving equipment. The Castle reported on ERDUs development of prefabricated buildings for use in Arctic environments, and the subsequent testing of these structures in Greenland and Canada. During the 1960s, the primary focus of research at Fort Belvoir shifted to the development of Army vehicles.

Perhaps no structure on the post illustrates more graphically Fort Belvoir's research and development phase than the SM-1 (Stationary, Medium Power, First Prototype) Nuclear Plant. This facility was developed to generate electricity for commercial use, and to cut back the Department of Defense's dependency on fossil fuels. The SM-1 Plant, which represented the first national nuclear training facility for military personnel, became operational in 1957 and remained in operation until its decommissioning in 1973.

The innovative initiatives pursued at Fort Belvoir during the post-war period were also illustrated in its residential architecture. In 1948, the well-known architectural firm of Albert Kahn & Associates designed the Thermo-Con House. This house form was intended to provide a prototype for low-cost, mass-produced housing. The construction of the house employed an innovative technique that used chemically-treated concrete that rose from its foundation like bread rising in a pan. Another major residential project during the 1970s was the McRee Barracks, a complex of mid-rise buildings constructed in 1975 to house 1,200 single enlisted men.

Fort Belvoir's mission expanded in other directions between 1950 and 1980. The post began playing host to a variety of organizations, including the DeWitt Hospital, the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), and the Defense Mapping School (DMS). The DeWitt Hospital, constructed in 1957, provides regional healthcare services. DSMC, founded in 1971, is a graduate level institution that offers advanced courses of study in weapon systems acquisition management for both military personnel and civilians. DMS, a component of the Defense Mapping Agency, was established in 1972 to provide instruction in tactical mapping, land geodetic surveys, and cartographic drafting.

Fort Belvoir's educational role also expanded in new directions. Every summer from the 1950s through the 1970s, the post hosted a group of United States Military Academy (USMA) cadets for a week-long training visit. The course was designed to emphasize military engineering as a field of specialization for career development. Fort Belvoir's USMA Preparatory School also provided a year-long course of academic study to prepare selected enlisted personnel for entry into West Point. Fort Belvoir personnel also became intimately involved with two of the most poignant events of the post-war years. In 1963, engineers from Belvoir surveyed the first temporary John F. Kennedy gravesite, and designed a prototype eternal flame all in less than a week. Lt. Gen. Walter K. Wilson recalled the events of that weekend. ". . they decided suddenly... they were going to bury him in Arlington. That really put us in the middle of things. We had to get over there and locate the grave, work with the cemetery staff, survey the plot, and recommend its location." After the President's widow requested the installation of an eternal flame, recalled Wilson: "We all got together on the floor of an Engineer School building ...where we laid out different things that might work ... We designed it right on the floor there the concept of what would be the eternal flame."

In 1982, divers from the installation's 86th Diving Detachment assisted local disaster management agencies in recovering victims and debris from the frozen Potomac River following the disastrous crash of an Air Florida Boeing 737 in the midst of a heavy January snowstorm. The post's 11th Engineer Battalion installed float bridging out to the wreck site. Map personnel from the 30th Engineer Battalion also surveyed the wreck site and produced a series of maps that identified each fragment of baggage or equipment on the river bottom.

Fort Belvoir remained the home of the Engineer School until 1988. Due to a shortage of land for training at Belvoir, the Engineer School relocated to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, thus ending the 76-year association between the Engineer School and Belvoir.

Although its role as an engineer training center diminished after the move, Fort Belvoir continues to fulfill an important and valuable role today. The 8,600-acre post is one of the larger installations in the Military District of Washington, which also includes Fort McNair, Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and Fort Richie. The post's present mission is to provide essential administrative and basic operations support to its tenant organizations.

Fort Belvoir houses tenants from all armed forces, as well as such Department of Defense agencies as the Defense Systems Management College and the Defense Mapping School. To carry out this mission effectively, Fort Belvoir has evolved from a traditional military installation to a more broadly based community. Today, Fort Belvoir functions in many ways like a small city, with its own ordinances, land use plan, building codes, utilities, public parks, and academic institutions.