By Carla Christiano
I love a road trip. In the last year though, because of COVID-19, my road trips haven’t gone much beyond a few local stores. So, when the chance arose to discover Prince William history through historical markers, I gassed up my old Honda and hit the road. After more than 400 miles, a couple of tanks of gas and a dog-eared Prince William County Historical Marker Guide, I discovered a lot about this place I’ve called home.
Maybe you can too.
About the Markers
In Prince William, we are surrounded by the stories that appear in the history books. Yet every year, more and more places at the center of those stories are disappearing. To ensure those stories aren’t lost, the city of Manassas, the town of Occoquan, local organizations, the county and even the state have erected historical markers. These markers also “are intended to promote a greater appreciation for Prince William’s rich heritage,” according to Jim Burgess, the Prince William County Historical Commission member responsible for the marker guide and other Commission publications.
One of the oldest such programs in the country is Virginia’s historical highway marker program, now overseen by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Begun in 1927, its goal is to “present history where it actually happened.” Prince William has a number of these silver and black markers lining local roads. The earliest dates from 1928 and commemorates the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), where Robert E. Lee commanded Confederate troops to victory weeks before the more famous Battle of Antietam. That marker was placed beside Lee Highway (now Route 29) only a few months after it became one of the first to be paved in the area, connecting Arlington to Warrenton, more than a decade before Manassas National Battlefield Park was established to preserve the actual historic battlefields.
Usually, the hardest part of any road trip is deciding where to go. The marker guide, produced by the Prince William County Historical Commission, makes that easy enough by listing 104 markers (though eight more have been added since it was published in 2017) with their text and map coordinates. For this road trip, however, finding those markers even with coordinates was a challenge. (Unfortunately, the online system (gisweb.pwcgov.org/webapps/historicmarkers/) lacks the coordinates and is older than the brochure.) Some markers are hard to spot among other signs along local roads. A few others are simply missing — victims of road construction or just damaged. Add in our area’s notorious traffic and few places to pull over, finding local history where it happened is a lot harder than the early days of motoring.
The marker guide divides Prince William into three areas. Here is some of what you can discover.
Highlights in Map 1 (Northern Prince William)
West of Gainesville and divided by Route 29, the former thriving mill town of Buckland can be easily overlooked. Founded in 1798 and named for architect William Buckland, the town was a stagecoach stop on the Warrenton Turnpike (parts of which are under Route 29). Although pulling onto Buckland Mills Road and blocking out the whizzing nearby traffic is difficult, you can still sense some of what the Marquis de Lafayette saw here in 1824 when he visited. The stone Buckland tavern, now a private residence, the former Buckland post office and the John Trone house are a few of its 19th century structures still standing near the Broad Run.
Colonial Roads (Haymarket)
North of Buckland where Routes 15 and 55 converge is the town of Haymarket. Founded in 1799, a year after Buckland, Haymarket is located at the junction of two old colonial roads: the Carolina Road (part of 15), which led to Frederick, Maryland and the Carolinas, and the north branch of the Dumfries Road (55), which was a major trade route between the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac River.
During the Civil War, on Nov. 4, 1862, Union soldiers invaded the town. They stole what they wanted and then set fire to the town. Only four buildings escaped the blaze: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (built around 1803) on Fayette Street and three small houses nearby.
The Haymarket Museum (townofhaymarket.org/museum) located in the 1883 Town Hall has more information about that and another fire that almost devastated Haymarket a second time. The Historic Preservation Division will lead a walking tour of the town on Aug. 20 (pwcgov.org/government/dept/park/hp/Pages/Historic-Preservation-Events.aspx).
Thoroughfare and Thoroughfare Gap
About three miles west of Haymarket on Route 55 is the little village of Thoroughfare. Established in 1828, Thoroughfare was populated mostly by free African Americans who worked at nearby Chapman’s Mill, a gristmill built in 1742.
In the 1850s, the Manassas Gap railroad built their line beyond the village through the narrow gap in the Bull Run Mountains at the border of Prince William and Fauquier counties next to the Broad Run and the John Marshall Highway (now Route 55). On Aug. 28, 1862, Confederate troops battled Union troops protecting the gap. When the Union withdrew, the Confederates reunited with troops already fighting the Second Battle of Manassas, contributing to the Confederate victory.
Manassas (Bull Run) Battles
All county line historical markers mention the First and Second Battles of Manassas (Bull Run) that took place in 1861 and 1862, respectively. The First Battle was the first major conflict of the Civil War, resulting in 900 killed and more than 3,000 wounded in one day. The three-day Second Battle resulted in more than 3,000 killed and around 19,000 wounded. Those two battles and the associated destruction devastated the area.
The 5,000-acre Manassas National Battlefield Park, located about five miles from Manassas, tells the stories of the soldiers fighting those battles and the residents who stayed to rebuild. Some historical markers are located in the parking lot of the Stone House, one of three pre-Civil War buildings in the park and an aid station during both battles.
July 21, 2021 marks the 160th anniversary of the First Battle. The park will commemorate this anniversary on July 16 and 17 with tours and special programs.
Jennie Dean was born enslaved in 1852 a little north of what became the Manassas Battlefield. Although she had a limited education herself, she ensured her siblings got an education. While working as a servant in Washington, D.C., she raised funds for and established several area churches as well as founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in 1894 (manassasva.gov/things_to_do/manassas_museum/historic_sites/industrial_school___jennie_dean_memorial.php). The school survived as a private institution until the 1930s and would evolve into a regional high school for black students until the 1950s. Although she died in 1913, her legacy continued.
Highlights in Map 2 (Middle Prince William)
Ben Lomond Farm
Approximately two miles south of Manassas Battlefield, now in a quiet suburban neighborhood off of Sudley Manor Drive is Ben Lomond farm. Once part of a 1,500-acre plantation, Ben Lomond was built by Benjamin Tasker Chinn in 1832, who had inherited the site just two years before. In 1850, Chinn and his family moved to Hazel Plain, now part of Manassas Battlefield, and Ben Lomond was rented to a Scottish family, the Pringles. The Pringles remained during the First Battle of Manassas even after Confederate soldiers had taken over the house and used it as a field hospital. After Confederates evacuated the area in 1862, Federal soldiers ransacked the house. It still contains graffiti from that time.
On July 24 and 25, Ben Lomond will mark the 160th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas through demonstrations and tours (pwcgov.org/government/dept/park/hp/Pages/Historic-Preservation-Events.aspx).
Battle of Bristoe Station
Bristoe Station Battlefield off Bristow Road is a 140-acre historic site in western Prince William County, which is bounded by a housing development and railroad tracks similar to what drew Confederate and Union soldiers to clash here before the Battle of Second Manassas on Aug. 27, 1862, and again on Oct. 14, 1863, at the Battle of Bristoe Station.
On Aug. 27, staff will lead a 90-minute walking tour covering the events in real time as they transpired that day 159 years ago. On Aug. 28 and 29, the park will commemorate the Battle of Kettle Run (pwcgov.org/government/dept/park/hp/Pages/Historic-Preservation-Events.aspx).
Just three miles down busy Bristow Road from the Bristoe Battlefield is Brentsville, part of an original 30,000-acre land grant awarded by the king and confiscated from Robert Bristow, a Tory (a king supporter), in 1779 during the American Revolution.
Established in 1820, Brentsville was the county seat from 1822 to 1893, and had taverns, stores, churches, the courthouse, clerk’s office and jail. Although few early buildings remain, the 1820s courthouse and jail have been restored by the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division as part of the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, which also includes an 1880s church and 1920s school. Unfortunately, the county clerk’s office was destroyed during the Civil War and many important records were looted by soldiers.
On July 24, the Historic Preservation Division will hold tours at the historic centre. Additionally, on Aug. 14, Sept. 11 and Oct. 9, they will also host bluegrass concerts there (pwcgov.org/government/dept/park/hp/Pages/Historic-Preservation-Events.aspx).
After much lobbying from Manassas residents, including former Union soldier George C. Round, the county seat moved from Brentsville to Manassas in 1894. Originally known as Tudor Hall and then as Manassas Junction for the two railroads that intersected there in 1851, the City of Manassas has remained the county seat ever since. The Old Courthouse, which was built in 1892, served as the courthouse until 1984 when a new courthouse was built nearby.
In 1911, at the 50-year anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), the Old Courthouse witnessed the first Peace Jubilee in the nation when former Union and Confederate soldiers reunited to mark the anniversary and to celebrate peace. The grounds contain a small memorial to that observance.
Highlights in Map 3 (Southern Prince William)
History of Dumfries
Although you would never know to look at it now, Dumfries once rivaled New York and Boston as a thriving port. Chartered on May 11, 1749, Dumfries is older than the city of Alexandria (by hours), making it the oldest continuously chartered town in Virginia. Dumfries once had taverns, theaters, tobacco warehouses and stores. Even George Washington was known to frequent Dumfries.
Despite its inland location on Quantico Creek, the town was a leading commercial center for the sale and shipment of tobacco, reaching its peak in the 1760s. In 1762, the county court moved to Dumfries, where it remained for 60 years. Dumfries’ success was rather short-lived, however. Tobacco, which had helped Dumfries prosper also contributed to its decline, when soil erosion caused by tobacco farming silted the Quantico Creek. After years of decline, the court relocated to Brentsville in 1822.
The Weems-Botts Museum has more information about Dumfries and its history (historicdumfriesva.org/).
North of Dumfries off Blackburn road is Rippon Lodge, one of the earliest buildings in Prince William. Richard Blackburn built Rippon Lodge as his main estate house around 1747. Like Dumfries, Rippon Lodge also has a connection to George Washington — one of Blackburn’s granddaughters married Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew.
Overlooking the Potomac River and Neabsco Creek, the wooded property was privately owned up until 1999, when the county purchased the house and 43 acres. The house and grounds have been restored and open to the public since 2007.
On July 10 and 11, Rippon Lodge will host a World War II Weekend (cgov.org/government/dept/park/hp/Pages/Historic-Preservation-Events.aspx).
Town of Occoquan
Like Dumfries, Occoquan began with a tobacco warehouse (in 1734), but it grew through manufacturing and from its sawmills and gristmills, finally becoming a town in 1804. As a strategic point on the river, Occoquan saw skirmishes during the Civil War, and one Confederate general, Wade Hampton, headquartered there in 1862 at the Hammill Hotel. That building still stands at the corner of Union and Commerce Streets.
Although the mills have been closed since 1924, the Occoquan River is still important to visitors and residents alike for kayaking, boating and fishing. The Mill House Museum (occoquanhistoricalsociety.org/blank-3) has more information on Occoquan’s history.
Connecting Dale Boulevard to Cardinal Drive is Benita Fitzgerald Drive in Dale City. This busy thoroughfare is named for 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, a native of Dale City. A graduate of Gar-Field High School and the University of Tennessee, Fitzgerald Mosley’s accomplishments include being inducted into the Virginia High School Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, as well as being named Sportswoman of the Century by The Potomac News.
And just blocks away from Fitzgerald Mosley’s historical marker is Fitzgerald Elementary School, named for her mother, Fannie W. Fitzgerald. A dedicated long-time county elementary school teacher, Fitzgerald was also one of four African-American teachers to integrate the all-white county schools in 1964.
There is so much history in Prince William and lots more to discover at the next historical marker: Minnieville, Quantico, Leesylvania and Woodbridge Airport to name just a few.
Carla Christiano is a Prince William native, admitted history geek and a technical writer for SAIC.
The Prince William County Historic Preservation Division oversees the Civil War Trail markers, which focus on the varied stories of the area’s Civil War history from 1861 – 1865. An online system (visitpwc.com/history/civil-war-trail/) or the associated brochure can help with planning a road trip for those sights.