Posts Tagged ‘Occoquan Regional Park’

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The Historic Town of Occoquan

With traffic and transit changes anticipated in D.C. because of the long Columbus Day holiday weekend, for this bike ride I chose to go outside of the city.  For this excursion I chose the historic town of Occoquan, located approximately 23 miles south of D.C. in Prince William County, Virginia (MAP).  It is situated on the south bank at the fall line of the Occoquan River, and directly across the river from the Occoquan Regional Park and the Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln.  With access available via road, river and the East Coast Greenway, it is accessible by car, boat, foot traffic, and by bike.

The town derives its name from an Algonquian Doeg Indian word, meaning “at the end of the water”.  And throughout its existence the river has been its lifeblood.  It was its location on the water which attracted and then sustained its original occupants, indigenous people who relied upon the river for fish and sustenance.  Similarly, for the British and subsequently American colonists who came after them, the river provided an ideal site to for transportation and trade.   A tobacco warehouse was built as early as 1736, and an industrial complex began in 1750.  Within the next several decades Occoquan had iron-manufacturing, a timber trade, quarrying, river-ice, shipbuilding, a bake house, saw mills, warehouses, and Merchant’s Mill, the first automated grist mill in the country.  It operated for 175 years until destroyed by fire.  Later, during the Civil War, the Occoquan Post Office passed letters and packages between North and South.  But eventually river silting and the shift in traffic to railroads reduced ship traffic to Occoquan and ended its days as a port.

Reflecting the rich history of Occoquan, a number of structures in town, including a number in the downtown commercial area, are part of the Occoquan Historic District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  One of the more prominent examples of these structures is Rockledge, the former house of the town’s founder, which sits on an overlook above the town.

But the town has not only survived.  It has thrived.  Today, it is a restored artists’ community, with an eclectic collection of over one hundred specialty shops offering everything from antiques, arts, crafts, fashions, to unique gifts.  The town also offers a public park complete with a gazebo, a town boat dock, a museum, guided ghost walks, and a full array of dining choices, from ice cream and snack stands to a five star restaurant.  And everything is within walking distance, with much of it adjacent to the river.

It was still dark when I arrived this morning, but I found a place named Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery that was already open.  So I indulged in a piece of Shenandoah Peach Pie, which I took down to the waterfront and enjoyed for breakfast as the sun was coming up.  I also purchased a jar of locally-made fresh pumpkin butter to take home.   The bakery, the riverfront, and the entire town were all fun to explore, and a great way to begin Columbus Day, named after a great explorer.

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Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln

As an employee of the government, I look forward to and enjoy the three-day weekends that Federal holidays often provide. I like to take advantage of these long weekends by venturing out from the city and visiting some of the places in the D.C. metro area which are not as easily travelled to during a short workday lunchtime bike ride. And even though today’s holiday comes during the middle of the week, it still provided a chance to go riding in a place different than the norm.  So for this morning’s ride, I went back to Occoquan Regional Park, located at 9751 Ox Road in Lorton, Virginia (MAP), to check out an area of the park that I saw but did not have time to explore in depth during the last time I visited there.

During this ride I stopped to see and learn more about the old round brick building with an adjacent brick smokestack chimney that is located up the road from the park’s administrative offices, near the soccer fields. It is known as the Lorton Correctional Facility Beehive Brick Kiln.  Fortunately, I found a plaque on the side of it that identified what it is, and explains its purpose and history.  It reads, “From the turn of the century until the late 1960’s nine kilns on this site were operated by inmates of the Lorton correctional facility.

The bricks stacked inside this kiln are ready to be baked. For 4 to 5 days coal fires in each of the hearths were stoked around the clock. Hot air rose along the inside of the vaulted walls but did not escape through the hole in the ceiling. Heat was sucked down through the bricks, between louvers in the floor, across the underground flue, and up the tall chimney which stands beside the kiln.

These kilns were a primary local source of the red brick used in constructing the historic durable buildings now seen throughout Northern Virginia. Today beehive kilns are little used.”

The nine brick kilns each had a capacity of about 12,000 bricks for each firing.  A batch of bricks would took approximately fourteen days from start to finish.  It would take a couple of days for loading or setting the green bricks, and then three days for curing.  Then two more days were required for heating the interior of the kiln to full temperature.  Each batch would then spend a day in the kiln at full heat.  The bricks and kiln then needed another three or four days at the end to cool down.   And lastly, it would take another day to unload or draw the finished bricks.

The sole remaining brick kiln is the oldest remaining building of the former Lorton Correctional Facility.  In fact, it not only predates the other buildings, it was utilized in the production of the bricks that were used to construct the facility’s other buildings.

The now-closed Lorton Correctional Facility used to be the prison for D.C., and was considered quite innovative when it first opened.  The prison was funded by Congress in 1910 and initially had no bars, fences or walls.  People at the time described it as being like a college campus. The reason for this is that it started off as a new approach to incarceration, with the intention of reforming and rehabilitating prisoners by teaching them vocational skills.  It was also meant to be totally self sufficient through income generated by the vocational programs, like the brick kilns.  Unfortunately, it failed to achieve the goals that were set for it and the prison closed in 2001 having become, much like the kilns, outdated and obsolete.

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Occoquan Regional Park

I like to take advantage of the opportunities long holiday weekends provide to venture out from D.C.’s city limits and visit some of the places in the metro area which are not as easily travelled to during a workday lunch hour bike ride.  For this Labor Day weekend, I decided to go for an early morning ride and visit Occoquan Regional Park.

Administered by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Occoquan Regional Park is located at 9751 Ox Road, in Fairfax County, Virginia (MAP).  It is situated on the banks of the Occoquan River, a tributary of the Potomac River, and is directly across from the Town of Occoquan, which is in neighboring Prince William County.  The park is composed of approximately 400 acres of recreational space which is comprised of dense forests as well as open spaces, and includes picnic shelters and gazebos, soccer and baseball fields, volleyball courts, a batting cage, and a marina with a fishing pier, sundeck, boat launch and kayak rentals.  And although it is not mentioned on the park’s website or in any guidebooks, it is one of my favorite places to pick wild blackberries.

The park also contains several attractions of historical significance, including preserved Civil War arsenals, the site of the Women Suffrage Prison at Occoquan Workhouse, and the Lorton Prison Beehive Brick Kiln.  The prison was in operation in 1917, and housed women who dared to speak out in favor of the right to vote for women.  It even house women picketers who were arrested in front of The White House.  And the kiln was in operation from the turn of the century until the late 1960’s, and was a primary local source of the red bricks used in constructing many of the historic buildings which can be seen throughout Northern Virginia.  I hope to visit these places and learn more about them in the future.

And last but not least, the park contains not only a paved cycling trail, but is also one of the few places in the region to serve as a trailhead for and site within multiple routes of regional and national significance.  These include: Park lands, trails and associated waters that are part of the Fairfax Cross-County Trail; the diverse, braided network of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail; an historic journey commemorated by the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail; and the Occoquan Water Trail, recognized as both a National Recreation Trail and part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network.

With all that is has to offer, Occoquan Regional Park serves not only as a destination in and of itself, but as a starting point as well.

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