Before the arrival of European settlers, the present-day Clifton area was part of the hunting grounds used by Algonquin-speaking members of the Dogue tribe. The Dogue lived in villages and towns along the Potomac River and nearby Occoquan River. They carved bowls out of soapstone found in the area.
European settlers composed of Scots merchants created the first nearby port settlement in the mid-1710s near the present-day Dumfries–Triangle area. Land in the Clifton area began to be settled in the early 18th century.
During the Civil War, the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps built a railroad siding here on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in order to supply the Union Army with timber for railroad ties, bridge trusses, and firewood. The siding was named after John Henry Devereux, superintendent of military railroads that terminated in Alexandria. Wood from hundreds of acres was cut and hauled by wood choppers and teamsters, most of whom were escaped slaves, and transported by train to Alexandria. The laborers risked capture by working outside protected Union lines.
In spring 1863, a wye was constructed at Devereux Siding to enable trains to turn around after the Union Army abandoned the Orange and Alexandria Railroad south of Bull Run. By June 1863 the entire railroad outside of the defenses of Washington was abandoned until the return of Major General George Meade‘s Army of the Potomac following their successful Gettysburg Campaign. New York infantry regiments were stationed at the siding in order to protect wood station operations and the railroad from Confederate attack.
Devereux Siding was located between the station at Union Mills and Sangster’s Station. Today, there are two neighborhoods outside of the town named after the Devereux and Sangster’s stations. The Orange & Alexandria Railroad extended from Alexandria to Orange, Virginia. For a brief period near the close of the war, the siding became the sixth scheduled stop for passengers and freight and became known as “Devereux Station”.
The O & A was the only railroad link between Alexandria and Richmond, Virginia.
Village of Clifton
William E. Beckwith bequeathed his land south of the railroad to his former slaves, some of whom were his children. Harriet Harris and the five children she had with William Harris were devised the land where the village of Clifton was initially developed. Harrison G. Otis, a New York realtor, purchased a large tract of land north of the railroad from the Beckwith estate and a small lot of land south of the railroad from William Harris, where he constructed a saw mill and train depot. The depot opened in November 1868 and was named “Clifton Station”. The next year, an official U.S. post office opened at the depot, and Otis built the historic Clifton Hotel. Harrison Otis and his brother J. Sanford Otis founded the Clifton Presbyterian Church, still in existence. The station no longer exists, but the town of Clifton is still standing along what used to be the O & A Railroad, now a part of the Norfolk Southern Railway.
William Harris divided a portion of his family’s land adjacent to the railroad into ten lots that were offered for sale in 1869. Homes and businesses were constructed on the lots, including a general merchandise store located on the western side of Main Street adjacent to the railroad. Harris expanded the village by selling additional lots along Main Street in the mid-1870s. Harrison Otis and his business partner Margaret Hetzel subdivided land on the eastern side of Main Street for development and several lots were sold in the 1870s; however, this development was not as successful as planned due to Harrison Otis’s reduced mental health and Margaret Hetzel’s financial difficulties.
The village grew in the late 1800s when a number of homes and businesses were constructed, including additional merchandise stores and lumber yards.
During the 1900s, the town was nearly the same size as it is now. The first schoolhouse in Clifton was in Susan Reviere Hetzel’s home on Pendleton Avenue. She was also one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The school was later moved to the side-yard area of what would later become the home of Mayors Swem Elgin and Jim Chesley. In 1912 a new schoolhouse (built for K-12) was built overlooking the town; it stood until 1952. A new elementary school, Clifton Elementary, was built on the same site in 1953 and served the community until 2003. On March 9, 1930, the Clifton General Store caught fire, and a few months later a new general store was built in its place.
By the late 1960s, the town was decaying. Many houses in the town were boarded up and abandoned. A number of new families and residents began much-needed gentrification of the town. Wayne Nickum, a former mayor, worked to ensure the entire town was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Some 63 Clifton buildings were added to the register at that time. Another resident, Jim Chesley, who would also serve as mayor of Clifton, worked tirelessly with national and state politicians and administrators to ensure the town maintained its historic integrity. In 1967, the town sponsored the first Clifton Day Festival as a way to attract the public to this historic town. This celebration continues each year as a town fair and music festival on the Sunday before Columbus Day in October.
Towards the late 1970s and early 1980s suburban development was starting to edge near Clifton. Communities such as Burke Center and Little Rocky Run were constructed, raising concerns that the new construction might ruin the beauty of the Clifton area. In the 1980s, an ordinance was enacted stating that only one building could be placed on 5-acre (20,000 m2) parcels that have not already been divided. Single-family homes were constructed in the southern and eastern parts of Clifton, while land to the north became equestrian areas.
The town was declared a National Historic District by the US Department of the Interior in 1985