With Halloween fast approaching, it seemed the perfect time to revisit a history column I wrote some years ago about Cabin John’s spooky legends and tales, from a ghostly hermit in the woods to a mysterious female stranger and family burial grounds.
Captain John Smith, who helped establish Jamestown, was the first to map the Potomac River, and made his way from the Chesapeake to Great Falls. Cabin John is most likely a corruption of the name Captain John. Stories about the name Cabin John, passed down through generations, describe various incarnations of a mysterious recluse who lived in the woods near the creek. The ghost of “John” was even used as a clever marketing ploy for the American Land Company’s sale of lots in Cabin John Park in the early 1900s.
Some legends depict “John” as a salty, tattooed man who jumped ship and settled here, burying his stolen treasure nearby. Property deeds from the sale of lots by the American Land Company included that the “party of the first part reserves the right to one-half interest in any treasure or articles of special value which may have been hidden on said lot or parcel by John of the Cabin.” The ghost of John was rumored to return on gusty nights, only to disappear in a flash of light when others saw him. Crossing the Union Arch Bridge after dark instilled fear in many locals.
A 15¢ booklet from 1903 called Picturesque Cabin John by J.H. Wilson Marriott told the tale of a lone man who lived along the creek, long before the bridge was completed in 1864. This loner “disappeared as mysteriously as he came, and nothing was ever known as to his fate. His old cabin crumbled into ruins.” A ghost called “John of the Cabin” was often seen near his lonely, desolate shelter in the woods. The legend of the female stranger, whose grave does indeed exist in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria, appeared in newspapers throughout the 1800s. (I wrote about her in the September 2021 Village News history column.) A 1912 romance novel by Charles T. Johnson Jr. connected this legend to Cabin John.
Johnson’s tale depicted a love triangle between an English nobleman, a young army surgeon named John and a beautiful orphan. During a heated exchange, the nobleman fell and died. The lovers escaped to America, sailing along “historic waters made famous by the widely heralded exploits of the redoubtable Captain John Smith” and married en route. The fugitives made their home along the verdant Cabin John Creek. After many happy months, John’s wife fell ill. He took her across the Potomac River to Alexandria in search of a doctor, but she passed away. Honoring her wish to remain unknown, he buried her below a marble slab inscribed “To the Memory of a Female Stranger.” John returned to their creekside home distraught. Years later, his brother arrived from England, only to find a deserted, overgrown cabin, all signs of life rotted away, the skeleton of his kin near the creek and a note signed “Affectionately, your brother, John.”
Another version of the legend described a beautiful Snow White-like character who haunted a cabin by the creek. “She was queen of the forest….Her cabin was a bower of vines…Wild birds flew about her head, rabbits hopped about her feet, and squirrels from every nearby tree ate from her hand.” But one day she disappeared, and those who claimed to have seen her fly towards the heavens later feared being near the creek at nightfall.
Whoever John of the Cabin was—a hermit, a pirate, a lover—iterations of his story lived on through local folklore. These tales piqued the interest of J.S. Tomlinson, the owner of the American Land Company, who purchased most of the land that is now Cabin John and began selling lots in 1912. Tomlinson’s early maps of Cabin John Park pinpoint John’s Cabin, along the creek beside an elm tree. Besides laying partial claim to any found treasure, Tomlinson included a photograph of the site of John’s Cabin in the company’s brochure, with the supposed ghost of John lurking in the shadows.
Before Tomlinson developed Cabin John Park, the land was owned by only several families. One of the earliest land owners, Joseph White, purchased a large swath in 1784. His family eventually owned all of what is now Cabin John Park. Edith Armstrong’s 1947 historical pamphlet on Cabin John’s history notes that the White family graveyard was “near a large cedar tree not far from where Second Street and Ridge Road (now Arden Road and 75th Place) join. The old tombstones were hauled away during the construction of the C&O Canal, a majority of the workers were Irish immigrants. Many Irish laborers who died during the 1832 cholera plague were buried on a plot of land along Persimmon Tree Road; the land was later sold to the Friendship School’s founders for $5.00 as it was of little use for farming.
If you are out trick or treating on October 31st, keep your eyes peeled for the ghost called “John of the Cabin!”
By Rachel Donnan