By Olivia Overman | Photos by Kathy Strauss
Poised on the edge of Prince William and Fairfax Counties, the quaint town of Occoquan is not only steeped in history but has all the necessary ingredients for an eclectic destination spot. With restaurants, shops, businesses and its local government, Occoquan is a place where old meets new, and the townspeople want to know your name.
A natural gateway to Prince William via the Route 123 Bridge, Occoquan was voted Best Tourist Spot in Prince William County in 2015. With easy access from the interstate and the water, this quaint little town packs a big punch when it comes to what it has to offer.
A Trail of History
Occoquan was founded in 1734 as a trading post, and there is over 300 years of history within this little oasis nestled neatly away from the hustle and bustle of Northern Virginia life. Once a bustling business center with the Occoquan Falls stimulating growth within the town, a fire on August 25, 1916, caused $50,000 in damages and brought the community to its knees. The fire wiped out the majority of the 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the town, leaving all but the foundations. Only a few of the original buildings were damaged and are still in use today. Rockledge Mansion built in 1757 by industrialist John Ballandine, a local industrialist who hired William Buckland, a master builder to construct the mansion, is now a location where individuals and groups can hold special events, weddings and community meetings. The Mill House, across the street from the Rockledge Mansion, became the nation’s first automated gristmill in 1788. Today it is home to the Occoquan Historical Society’s Museum. And Hammill Hotel on Union Street is now home to a woman’s accessory and jewelry store, Lil’ Bit of Posh.
While strolling through the town, historical facts can’t be missed on the numerous historical markers and register plaques that mark significant buildings and sites. It is as simple as following the Historic Occoquan Self-Guided Walking Tour (historicoccoquan.com). Mixing old with new, Earnie Porta commenced work on Quick Response barcoding of historical markers for the town a few years ago. “I’m doing the QR code project in Occoquan through the Occoquan Historical Society. The markers are simple QR codes… [that can be]read with a free app common to almost all cell phones now. The QR code directs the viewer to a web page on the Occoquan Historical Society website optimized for mobile devices. The advantage of the QR code marker is that the website can include historic photographs and more significant amounts of information than can typically be displayed with a traditional sign or marker. Furthermore, when new information is discovered, or an error is identified, it is far easier to update a web page rather than it is to buy a whole new sign,” Porta said.
There are currently two QR markers in the town, one in front of the Town Hall and the other in front of a building on the north side of Commerce Street between Ellicott and Union Streets. The Historical Commission has, however, provided a grant to put in more than 50 additional markers, which Porta hopes to have completed this summer.
The Future is Bright
Occoquan is a town where changes are coming about rapidly. Mayor Elizabeth Quist described the advances made in some of the largest projects currently underway in the town. “We’ve got a lot of projects going on in Occoquan right now, some that are highly visible, and others that are not,” Quist said. Most visible in the town is the River Mill Park project, which Quist said is progressing nicely. When open, the park will include a small event pavilion, a stone dust trail, restroom and storage facilities and incorporate updates to the footbridge.
“The project has been a long time coming for us and is made possible by a cooperative relationship with both Prince William County, providing the capital funding, and Fairfax Water, removing the industrial tanks and providing us with favorable lease conditions. The Town has incorporated the operational expenses of running and maintaining the 1.1-acre property into its annual operating budget. And, we’re planning to launch a summer concert series and other community programming for the park in 2017 as well. Through a matching grant, we will also be able to construct, finally, a canoe and kayak ramp this summer that was originally proposed as early as 2010, if memory serves,” said Quist.
Other major projects include The Potomac Science Center, The Occoquan Regional Park and The Packard Occoquan Center. “While these aren’t technically a part of the town, they represent a significant revitalization effort occurring all along the Occoquan River corridor,” Quist said.
A Little Town Packing a Big Punch
“We have welcomed several new businesses to town. Bar J’s is a new Tex-Mex restaurant located at 125 Mill Street,” said LaVerne Carson, owner of The Golden Goose in Occoquan and president of the Business Guild of Occoquan. “They are bringing many customers to town to rediscover, after so many years, their delicious fare. Another new business to the town is Good Hair Day, a salon and spa now located on Mill Street.”
From the weekly farmers market to the annual arts and craft fair, the town certainly does not have a shortage of events planned for residents and visitors alike. Coupled with the cafes, restaurants, various art galleries, wine shops, jewelers, antiques and home décor stores, it’s tough to leave empty-handed.
Former town council member and past president of Historic Occoquan, the late Robert Lehto, described the town of Occoquan like this: “With a history spanning a period almost as long as Virginia itself, Occoquan provides a unique mixture of pre-revolutionary, Victorian and modern aspects of life resulting in a living charm, which no restoration or modern city can equal.”
A graduate of American University’s School of Communication, Olivia Overman ([email protected]) is a freelance writer for both online and print publications.