Presley Henry O’Bannon of Sperryville was an impressive and influential figure in the history of Rappahannock County. A veteran of the Civil War and a member of the Virginia General Assembly, he ran a store in Sperryville, now the Corner Store, and expanded it by adding a storeroom in June-July of 1889 (now the Thornton River Grille). He was a school trustee; and established his famous Blue Ridge Kennels. An avid Democrat, a second cousin of William Jennings Bryan, he supported Bryan in his runs for the Presidency of the United States in 1896, 1900, and 1908, often having Bryan as his guest at his home in Sperryville.
In addition, he consistently supported efforts to obtain a railroad in Rappahannock County, even pushing for an “electric railway” between Sperryville and Culpeper in 1893. Now, in the early 1900s, he was one of the incorporators of the Rappahannock and Fredericksburg Railroad Company at a time when railroad charters could avoid restrictions, obtain concessions and easily ignore Virginia’s railroad regulations. Just about anything was possible.
Thus when the original 1898 charter was amended twice in the 1901-1902 period, the company could generate electrical power from certain rivers for use with electrically powered trains, market any surplus electricity, run wires overhead, operate any manufacturing or mechanical enterprise, use the right of way of public roads for its roadbed, and by condemnation acquire land for a right of way, as well as for stations, depot and power plants for its operations. It could even avoid being held liable for any prior charter errors.
Its charter said the railroad was to start in or near the city of Fredericksburg, and run, as desired, through the counties of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Fauquier, Culpeper, Orange, Prince William, Madison and Rappahannock, getting any such county governments to issue bonds subscribing to the railroad’s stock.
As another smart step, a separate company was formed to survey a route. Called the Eastern Virginia Construction Company, it was incorporated on April 8, 1901, with the aim of building the railroad from Fredericksburg via Culpeper and Sperryville to nearby Washington — some 55 miles in all. Officers of the company were Rappahannock, Culpeper and Fredericksburg notables, and P. H. O’Bannon was a member of a committee formed in June 1901 to place its unsubscribed stock then being offered.
Later, in November 1901, a meeting of the Eastern Virginia Construction Company was held in Culpeper, where the corps of civil engineers surveying the route made their report. The construction company decided not to accept the engineer’s report as final, and a committee was appointed to find a more feasible route.
An acceptable route was finally agreed upon: “… locate and construct a line of railroad from some point in or near Fredericksburg to some point at or near Washington in Rappahannock County, Virginia, passing through the said County of Culpeper at some point between Kelly’s Ford on the Rappahannock River and Germanna Ford on the Rapidan and, thence crossing the Southern Railway at some point between Brandy Station and Winston to a point on the line between Culpeper and Rappahannock Counties about 2 miles above Griffithsburg in said first named County near the farm of Oliver Durant, thence to its terminus in Rappahannock County.” Specific, but also vague enough to interest potential investors in having the railroad run near their property.
Rappahannock and Culpeper fully support it
Rappahannock County was first. On April 3, 1902, an election was held that the county government issue $50,000 in bonds toward the construction of the railroad. It was approved, but the board of supervisors stated the county, and thus its taxpayers, would not support any bond issue if the railroad were not completed and operational.
A year and a half later, the Blue Ridge Guide noted in mid-December 1903, “Individual subscriptions, to date, to be applied to the line between Washington (VA) and Culpeper, reached $36,000. Rappahannock’s subscription to the foregoing object is $50,000, making a total for Rappahannock of $86,000; and additional subscriptions are being made and pledged daily. This shows conclusively the great interest [that] the people of Rappahannock are taking in building this road. They recognize the fact that they must have it as a means of transportation to the get their already abundant and also their increasing produce to market, and put themselves in touch with the active business world. In addition to the foregoing subscription of $86,000 for the line in Rappahannock, Culpeper had also voted $50,000, and individual subscriptions there in addition for the work in that county, amount to $32,000, making up to this writing for that county of $82,000. This surely speaks with a clear voice for this most important and needed transportation and travel for our people.”
The Blue Ridge Guide at the end of 1903 noted that, “Mr. James H. Fletcher has invested $5,000 in stock of the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company. This stock is convertible into first mortgage bonds of the F.&R.R.R.C., at the option of the subscriber, upon the completion of the road. Additional investments in this stock have been made by citizens of Rappahannock, making $106,000 for this county, including the county’s subscription for the 31 miles called for by the survey from this place to Culpeper.”
A newspaper editor fights the railroad
For Culpeper County, that county’s subscription issue did not go smoothly. In May 1902, the editor and publisher of the Culpeper Exponent, Raleigh T. Green, began a remarkable campaign through his newspaper against Culpeper County’s government subscribing $50,000 in taxpayer’s money to a railroad, saying it would benefit only a select few in the county. Even though an election saw voters favor $50,000 in government bonds for the railroad, he took legal action and complex litigation followed. It was not until Nov. 3, 1902, that an injunction initiated by Raleigh T. Green was rejected, and a vote on March 10, 1903, again okayed the subscription. The editor then took up the cause of the “Good Roads” movement, but continued needling the railroad faction.
In the meantime, Stafford County became more involved when the route was shifted to go through that county to a point on the Potomac River with steamboat connections. A vote on that county’s $50,000 subscription support was rejected on March 10, 1903. This was bad news.
Despite this, Rappahannock County remained vitally interested in the railroad, with important people visiting to boost morale. General Floyd King, a former congressman from Louisiana, appeared in August 1903, and was pleased with the route and the county. He intended to interest venture capitalists in the railroad, and returned in March 1904, with an expert engineer and a representative of northern capitalists. In October 1905, an expert engineer representing Philadelphia capitalists visited the county.
The former president of the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company, Jno. S. Barbour of Culpeper, visited Rappahannock County on March 20, 1904, and discussed rumors about the whole enterprise falling apart and the county losing its $50,000 investment, but he noted the railroad had to be completed and operational before the county’s investment was exercised.
The Marganna, Virginia connection
Something seemed to be wrong though, as on Jan. 28, 1904, a few months before his visit, Barbour had resigned as president, along with two members of the board of directors. Next, on March 31, 1904, the general manager of the company, L. G. Johnson, died of either acute indigestion or a heart attack and was not replaced. Another omen was that the annual meeting of the railway company set for July 1, 1904, was not held. As in so many cases, little was heard from the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company after 1904.
One wonders if what might be called the Marganna Connection had something to do with the failure of the railroad. Marganna was in gold mine territory between Fredericksburg and Culpeper and L. G. Johnson, the general manager of the railway company, lived in Marganna. In 1894, he was superintendent of the Powhatan Land and Mining Company. He had been Marganna’s postmaster, sold lots with homes there, promoted an “immigration scheme” to bring “industrious and worthy citizens” from the north and west to settle on thousands of acres in the area.
His brother-in-law, W. H. Boals, later of Marganna, became vice-president of the railroad company, and a relative of his brother-in-law, J. A. Boals, of Marganna, became secretary of the company. In addition, an old friend from his Dakota Territory days, C.T. McCoy, became a member of the board of directors of the railway company.
L. G. Johnson was a clever individual, involved in a great many ventures beside the railroad, including one where, in 1903, he was one of three incorporators of a $2 million Pittsburg-Washington Mining Company. Whether nepotism, multiple ventures, and then his early death at age 57 contributed to the ultimate demise of the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company is unknown. (See more about Marganna and Johnson in the sidebar below, “The Marganna connection.”)
Those left seemed to be lack his knowledge and promotional skills. For example, in August 1904, after L. G. Johnson had died, J. A. Boals, the secretary, went to Fredericksburg trying to interest its businessmen in the railroad and in extending it “down the Northern Neck through King George, Westmoreland, Lancaster and Northumberland counties to deep water on the Chesapeake bay.” But these counties were outside those listed in its charter. Then, the Panic of 1907 in the United States also did not help. Subsequent filings with the Virginia State Corporation Commission always noted, “Not yet engaged in business,” with the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company finally disappearing in 1911.
The scorecard? Since 1870, Rappahannock County now had failed an even dozen times in its attempts to get a railroad.
Camelot in Rappahannock County
Rappahannock people have always enjoyed living in two worlds, the rural past and the so-called modern world. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, in the so-called Golden Age of America, many people in Rappahannock County welcomed the rural past by reliving the romantic life of ancient chivalry, attending tournaments where “knights” exhibited expert horsemanship to win the honor of choosing a beautiful woman as the Queen of Love and Beauty.
Presley Henry O’Bannon of Sperryville, usually called P. H. O’Bannon, was good at organizing such doings for “clever gentlemen and beautiful ladies.” One such event, held in mid-August of 1887, involved notables from Washington, D.C. (including a Countess), as well as some elites from Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond and Cincinnati. A “knight,” who had been awarded Virginia Military Institute’s highest award for scholastic achievement, the Jackson-Hope Medal, won the tournament and the right to select a Queen of Love and Beauty.
Winning a tournament was no mean feat. A “knight,” an expert horseman, rode at full gallop down a level 120-yard course, standing in his stirrups to smooth his bodily motion. With an eight-foot-long, sharply pointed lance, he aimed at an inch and a half diameter ring suspended six and a half feet off the ground, attempting to spear the ring on his lance. There were three such suspended rings over the course. Each knight did this three times, and the knight spearing the most rings was the victor.
Traditionally, the selection of the Queen of Love and Beauty was a very touching ceremony. The knights lined up in the order of their winnings, a trumpet sounded, and heralds preceded them to the stands. There, the Lord of the Tourney placed a wreath of beautiful flowers on the tip of the winning knight’s lance. The winning knight then rode slowly before the attending women, all dressed in beautiful gowns. At the lady of his choice, he slowly lowered his lance, and gently placed the floral wreath at her feet. She was his Queen of Love and Beauty. Everyone wept.
At Sperryville that August afternoon, a young lady from Baltimore became the Queen of Love and Beauty. Other winning knights followed, selecting a first, second, and third Maid of Honor. A coronation address was delivered, and dancing on a floor erected for that purpose began, led by the winning knight and his queen, with music provided by the Sperryville brass band. There was a picnic, and in the evening there was further dancing at Lloyd Hisle’s hotel, now the Hopkins Ordinary B&B and Ale Works, until a late hour. The end of a perfect day in Rappahannock County.
There were many such moments out of “Camelot” back in those days. At Fauquier Sulfur Springs in September 1891, Mr. Wade Massie of Rappahannock, “Knight of Meadows,” chose a young woman from Culpeper to be a Third Maid of Honor. In mid-August in 1900, P. H. O’Bannon attended a traditional tournament held at Stonyman Camp, at Skyland, where “the chivalry of the camp entered the lists for love and beauty.”
And so, in the words so poignantly sung by Richard Burton in the reprise of Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot,” “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.” Right here, in Rappahannock County.
The Marganna connection
In the eastern part of Culpeper County, near the village of Richardsville going toward Fredericksburg, there was once a gold mine and a village called Marganna or Morgana. Marganna came to the notice of L. G. Johnson long before he took the position of general manager of the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock Railway Company.
Because he was, in a sense, an outsider, it is best to provide some background on his life. He was born Larman Gunn Johnson in Illinois in 1848, attended law school at the University of Michigan and married Anna Margaret Boals. Johnson became involved in mining in Oregon, Washington, Dakota and Idaho; was the original promoter of the Aberdeen, Bismarck and Northwestern railroad in the Dakota Territory, plus a director, along with a life-long friend, C.T. McCoy, of the St. Paul, Black Hills & Pacific Railway.
He came to the Washington, D.C. area and in 1891 was involved in developing a mine for the Powhatan Company in Culpeper County. In 1892 he was an officer of the Washington and Arlington Railroad and was advancing the cause of converting a horse-drawn trolley line to an electric railway, e.g., a streetcar line, from Washington to Falls Church.
By 1893, the Powhatan Company mine at Marganna was turning out “a satisfactory amount of gold, although not yet in operation three months.” Heavy-duty equipment was soon in operation to raise mined material and separate out the gold. A post office was established at Marganna in 1893, and L. G. Johnson, always a promoter, started running ads in the Washington Morning Times in January 1897 for summer homes in Marganna. The ad said: “Summer Homes – $100 will buy one-half acre of land, with a new dwelling house; 3 rooms and fireplace; ready for occupancy; rooms 12 x 14 feet; pure water and most healthful portion of Virginia. Write for full particulars to L. G. JOHNSON, Marganna, Va.” Also in 1897 he sold off 800 acres of land near the Marganna post office.
A year later, in 1898, The Powhatan Company at Marganna was to be sold off at auction at the front door of the Culpeper County Courthouse, where John S. Barbour was one of the two special commissioners. L. G. Johnson and others bought it for $40,000 cash in January 1899, obtaining 1,000 acres of land, and the extensive machinery in the mines, which had been closed through five year of litigation. This may have been where Barbour met L. G. Johnson.
By 1900, L. G. Johnson had formed the Johnson Land Company at Marganna, and news account told of his immigration scheme: “This company will lay off several thousands of land in Culpeper and Fauquier counties into small farms and endeavor to attract immigration from the North and West. Branch offices will be established in New York and Boston and efforts made to locate industrious and worthy citizens on these vacant lands. New York and Pittsburg capitalists are said to be interested in the plans and purposes of the company.”
He even offered to convey free to any laboring man in New York City, or the state of Connecticut or New Jersey, a five–acre farm near Marganna who could prove they had lost their job because they had voted for William Jennings Bryan. This brought a newspaper rebuttal that said, in effect, that L. G. Johnson just was promoting himself.
When the Eastern Virginia Construction Company was organized on June 12, 1901, to survey the route of the Fredericksburg and Rappahannock County, a few days later L. G. Johnson was in Fredericksburg with one of the directors going over the line between Fredericksburg and Culpeper. It is highly likely that L. G. Johnson promoted the land around Marganna as being along the route.
It is known that in a filing in mid-June 1903, with the newly formed Virginia State Corporation, the railway company listed L. G. Johnson’s relatives and friends as key officers: his brother-in-law was vice-president of the company, and a relative of his brother-in-law was secretary, and an old friend from his Dakota Territory days, C.T. McCoy, became a member of the board of directors of the railway company.
Not only that, but in August 1903, L. G. Johnson was one of the incorporators of a $2 million mining company called the Pittsburg-Washington Mining company. By then he had a newly built home at 1016 D St. NE in Washington, D.C., with C. T. McCoy living in a similar home next door at 1014 D St. NW. These homes still exist and are worth today about $1.25 million and $1 million, respectively.
L. G. Johnson’s luck ran out when he died on Thursday, March 31, 1904.