Prince William Through The Years

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By Carla Christiano

PWL issue December 2013

Even if you’ve lived in an area for a while, it can be easy to forget what it used to be like. You may not recall the farm where a subdivision now is or the airport that a shopping center replaced.

Dumfries Post Office

Dumfries Post Office

In greater Prince William, we have seen lots of changes. Formed with land from Stafford County in 1731, Prince William County included not only its present territory, but the counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, some of Fauquier and the city of Alexandria as well.

Within the current county boundaries, several incorporated towns and even two independent cities—Manassas and Manassas Park—add to the fabric of the community. Decidedly rural in character, Prince William remained that way for decades until  the mid-20th century.

Recalling a landscape much different than today, longtime residents remember when Occoquan was the bustling hub on the county’s east side throughout the 1930s. One resident recalled Woodbridge having more hog farms than Manassas.

With the completion in 1964 of the Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway, now I-95, the eastern end of Prince William was transformed from family farms into a suburban satellite of Washington, D.C. Less than 50 years later, the west side is  facing a similar situation as Haymarket and Gainesville boom with new residents.

Yet it was a long time before the population grew. From the first U.S. census in 1790 to the 1950 census, Prince William’s population only climbed from 11,615 to 22,612. But with the start of the housing boom, those numbers jumped to 50,164 in 1960 and to 111,102 in 1970. The most recent census in 2010 shows Prince William County’s population at 402,002 residents.

To help tell the story of these changes, Prince William Living has gathered images depicting the community’s transformation over the years. Join us as we take a photographic walk down memory lane.

Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway/Route 1

A 1919 photo of Jefferson Davis Highway near Dumfries shows a muddy mess of a road that was not easily navigated. It was common for cars to get stuck in the mud, requiring the use of other vehicles or horses to pull them free.

The road was conceived in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of a transcontinental highway running through the Southern states. At the time, it was common for private organizations to identify a route, name it and promote its use, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

To eliminate confusion for highway travelers, the U.S. adopted a numbered highway system in the mid-1920s, replacing the myriad of named trails across the country. However, a lot of U.S. Route 1 in Virginia is still called Jefferson Davis Highway.

Locally, the highway was not paved until 1927, the year it received its Route 1 designation. By 1933, only a handful of area roads, such as Occoquan Road and Routes 28 and 29, had been paved.

Freestone Point

Freestone Point

Freestone Point

Although gambling was illegal in Virginia in the 1950s, J. Carl Hill figured out a way around the law. An old statute designated Maryland’s state line at the high water mark at Freestone Point, an area on the Potomac River between Dumfries and Woodbridge. Gambling was legal in Maryland at the time.

In 1957, Hill opened a floating casino, the S.S. Freestone, 300 feet offshore and within Maryland’s jurisdiction. The 220-foot, four-deck moored boat, which patrons and staff accessed by a wooden pier, featured 200 slot machines, a restaurant and a cocktail lounge with live music and dancing. The lounge also skirted the law because while legal in Maryland, selling liquor by the drink was illegal in Virginia.

Hill had ambitions plans for Freestone Point. The pier, a boardwalk, three swimming pools, snack bars, a parking lot for 2,000 cars and the beginnings of a children’s amusement park were built. However, despite the casino’s popularity, opposition to it grew. The Virginia and Maryland legislatures worked together to

Freestone Point

Freestone Point

close all offshore casinos along the Virginia shore. As a result, the casino shut its doors just two years after 0pening.

Hill Eventually sold the land to the American-Hawaiian Stemship Company, which donated it to the Virginia State Parks system in 1978.   Other facilities at Freestone Point remained open until 1962. Hill eventually sold the land to the American-Hawaiian Steamship


Families can still enjoy Freestone Point, which is now part of Leesylvania State Park. A fishing pier exists where the old pier was. Instead of casinos, you will find hiking trails, picnic shelters and group camping. In summer months, the public is invited to free concerts on the marina.Story Book Land

Storybook Land

Storybook Land

Before Kings Dominion and Bus Gardens, there was Story Book Land o Route 1 in Woodbridge.

From 1959 to 1981 many area families wandered across the “Billy Goats Gruff” bridge into 10 wooded acres of sites based on Mother  Goose rhymes  and fairytales. Children could explore Ali Baba’s cave, walk through a crooked house, sit down next to little Miss Muffet and be a part of the stories.

Debra Harman of Woodbridge remembers visiting Story Book Land in 1960. It had been her dream to go to Disneyland, but this was much closer. Like many kids growing up in the 1960s, she was a “freak” for fairy tales, she said. However, the park wasn’t just about that. “They had rides. They had trains. It was exciting,” Harman recalled.

Although Story Book Land closed before Harman ever got a chance to take her own son there, she said she wishes he had been able to experience it, too. “It had a little magic to it,” said Harman.

The Puppet Company, based in Glen Echo, Md., tried transforming the old Story Book Land site into the “Whimsy Woods” in 1994, but could never raise the needed funds. The site is now an empty wooded lot next to a storage facility and has been cleared of all its magical old buildings. Yet the memories live on in all the children who visited there. The “Story Book Land Alumni” Facebook page has more than 5,400 members.

Manassas Regional Airport/ Harris P. Davis Field

In the 1920s, Manassas wanted an airport but did not have the funds in its budget. So in 1931 a group of local investors paid about

Manassas AIrport

Manassas Airport

$6,000 for 94 acres off of Route 234 to build an airport “for the future benefit of the citizens of Manassas.”

For 14 years Manassas paid $1 a year to lease the property and then finally purchased it outright in 1945. Facing encroaching development in the area, the town moved the airport in 1964 to its current site at 10600 Harry J. Parrish Blvd.

The new airport, which began with a single 3,700-foot paved runway, has greatly expanded. The public-use Manassas Regional Airport, also known as Harris P. Davis Field, now encompasses 888 acres, has two paved runways and is home to more than  400 aircraft.

The Manaport Plaza Shopping Center, located at Route 234 and Irongate Way on Sudley Road, sits on the site of the old airport.

The center’s name combines the city name with “airport” to reflect its history.

Occoquan Mill House

Iron Manufacturing was Occoquan’s first major industry, but it became known as a mill town in the second half of the 18th century. The

View of Occoquan Mill from across the river

View of Occoquan Mill from across the river

heart of its mill complex, the main or merchants’ mill, continued in operation until 1924, when the main structure burned in a fire caused by the Occoquan Electric Light and Power Company. Left in ruins for a time, the administrative mill house component was restored and today is the Mill House Museum, located at 413 Mill Street and operated by the Occoquan Historical Society.

Continuing the Journey

If you enjoyed taking this journey back into the early days of Prince William, it doesn’t have to  end. Visit to view more photographs of days past. Have photos you would like to share? Submit them, along with your name and a brief description, to

Carla Christiano is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys. She can be reached at

Photos courtesy of Flip City of Manassas and John Collier, City of Manassas, Deborah Harman, Robert Hart, Historic Dumfries, Inc., Library of Congress, Occoquan Historic Society and the Office of Supervisor Frank Principi.


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