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"Crossroads of the Marine Corps"

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Chopawamsic Island history dates back to 1649

By Eve Baker | Marine Corps Base Quantico | June 11, 2015

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Just off the shore of Marine Corps Base Quantico lies Chopawamsic Island, the only island in the Potomac River within the boundary of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The 13-acre island is partly bordered by the restricted area extending outward from Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico; however, it is privately owned and hosts three houses, though according to base records, no one has lived there since 1979.

The last people to live on the island were the late Dr. Wesley Fry, a retired Navy captain, and his wife Erma Fry, who lived there from 1958-1979. Fry was a doctor at the Marine Corps Base Quantico hospital, according to his son William Fry. Fry said when his father and stepmother bought the island in 1958, the property was overgrown, and several existing structures were in a state of disrepair, but his father “spent a lot of effort getting them fixed up.” As reported in a 1989 Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article, no one had lived on the island in the previous 35 years, and nature had begun to retake it.

The elder Fry cleaned up the island and restored the main house and two smaller houses with the help of off-duty Marines he paid, and he dug out a swimming pool himself, said Fry. Fry recounted how it was difficult for his father to get supplies over to the island from the mainland because there is no bridge connecting it to the mainland. Fry installed boat docks and ferried supplies over from the Quantico town dock. By the time his father was done, “the main house was very nice,” Fry said.

Fry said his father worked out a deal with the base to get electricity run out to the island via an underwater cable, and they had water from a well. Though Fry was an adult and living on his own by the time his father bought the island, he said he visited a number of times and enjoyed it. He recalled there being numerous fruit trees on the island that they ate from.

The last residents before the Frys were most likely James and Mary Dent and their three daughters. According to the Free Lance-Star article, the island was owned by several Washington businessmen who used the island as a hunting retreat in the early 1900s, and Dent became the island’s caretaker in 1917, the year MCBQ was founded.

Joan Thompson, a granddaughter of the Dents, visited the island in later years, after her mother had left, and also recalled the fruit trees. She was quoted in the article, saying “the island was like a paradise. The trees were heavily laden with fruit, and roses climbed over the houses.”

The history of the island dates back much further than the founding of the base, however. Captain John Smith allegedly visited the island in 1607, though Native Americans may have used the island for generations beforehand, as Fry had a collection of arrowheads he found on the island. The first known nonnative resident of the island is believed to be Giles Brent, who settled there in 1649 with his wife, Kittamaquad, the daughter of a Piscataway Indian leader.

Reverend Alexander Scott, the rector of Aquia Church, may have purchased the island in the early 1700s, as it came to be known as Scott’s Island for many years. Church records show that Scott resided on a large piece of property known as Dipple Plantation. The main plantation house stood on the site of the current Marine Corps Air Facility, just across from the island, until the 1950s.

 Almost nothing is known of the next 100 years in relation to the island, because the Stafford County Courthouse burned down, and all existing documents were destroyed in the Civil War. The next event of record in the island’s history came in 1896, when Samuel Langley tested an airplane off the shore of the island. The unmanned, steam-powered aircraft, which had a wingspan of 14 feet and was launched from the roof of a houseboat, achieved a speed of about 25 mph and a height of about 100 feet. The flight was witnessed by Langley’s friend Alexander Graham Bell and became the “first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size,” as reported in a 2003 Free Lance-Star article.

According to a historical reference book, the Metropolitan Club of Washington maintained a clubhouse on Chopawamsic Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and President Theodore Roosevelt is known to have made several hunting trips to the island. His wife also took their children there for a visit, and Theodore Jr. tried his hand at hunting as well, bringing back some ducks and geese to the White House.

After the Frys sold the island in 1979, it changed hands several times until it was purchased by the current owners, the Sami brothers, in 1991 for $375,000. Though the three houses, pool, well and docks still exist, they are likely to be in a state of major disrepair, and there is no longer an electrical connection to the mainland. The island remains off-limits to base personnel and a source of mystery to those who pass by.


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