During the year 2001, were making our way around Virginia, each
issue visiting a small town and meeting some of the folks who make up the heart of
electric co-op country. On this years fifth
stop, well be...
Down Home in Woodbridge by Peter J. Fakoury,
Download in PDF
Format This Northern
Virginia community owes a rich
history and a bright future
The greenish waters of Neabsco Creek gently lap
against the creosoted timbers of an old barge. Her steel skin rusted away,
her frame now supports the decks and upward structures of the Pilot House,
one of Woodbridge’s last remaining independently owned restaurants.
serious business at Leesylvania State Park. Several nationally televised
bass tournaments are held there each year.
The Pilot House is a local landmark in Woodbridge. A
130-foot-long ship with a facade like a paddlewheel steamer, the
restaurant has served fresh seafood to local patrons and visitors for more
than three decades.
“For years we were one of the prime spots in
Northern Virginia,” says Pilot House owner Michael
Hill. “People would say, ‘I want to take you to a place that
you’ll never find on your own.’ Now all the restaurants around here
are chains, and the ones that are local and small are struggling to
In a way the Pilot House stands for a past Woodbridge
that is fighting to keep up with its future. Woodbridge is a community
with two distinct facets — a colorful history and unique natural beauty
on one side, a modern, fast-paced existence on the other.
To the visitor just passing through, it would be easy
to miss the old (and perhaps the real) Woodbridge. To many people
Woodbridge is Potomac Mills, the gargantuan outlet mall situated along
I-95. A mecca for bargain shoppers, it and its surrounding retail sprawl
followed a wave of residential growth that started in the 1960s. Like many
localities around the Washington, DC, area, Woodbridge has become a
bedroom community for commuters who ride the tide of traffic each morning
in search of work.
Woodbridge is more of a place than a town. Its
unincorporated boundaries are not well defined. It is Prince William
County’s eastern edge, a 10-square-mile area roughly marked by I-95 to
the west and the Potomac River to the east. Its northern boundary is the
Occoquan River, which separates Prince William County from its northern
neighbor, Fairfax County. To the south of Woodbridge lie the small towns
of Dumfries and Quantico.
River offers some spectacular views from Freestone Point, now part of
Leesylvania State Park.
It is impossible to separate Woodbridge’s past from
the Potomac River. The English explorer Captain John Smith sailed into the
area in 1608, shortly after the settlement of Jamestown. By trading with
the Native Americans there, he was able to secure enough food to help
sustain his settlement.
The area was settled in 1653, mostly by wealthy
plantation owners. Some of them became Virginia’s most prominent
families. George Mason’s grandfather owned the northernmost 500 acres of
what is now Woodbridge. The Mason family operated a ferry across the
Occoquan River that in 1795 was replaced by a wooden toll bridge.
Mason’s plantation later became known as “Woodbridge.”
Farther south along the river was Leesylvania, the
home of General Robert E. Lee’s grandparents, and the birthplace of his
father. The tobacco-producing plantation was situated on Freestone Point,
a peninsula of land sandwiched between Neabsco Creek and Powell’s Creek.
Restaurant owner Michael Hill is a lifelong Woodbridge resident. His
father built the restaurant in 1970. It is a local landmark, and one of
Woodbridge’s last remaining independently owned restaurants.
Not far from Freestone Point sits the Pilot House
Restaurant. It is a lasting tribute to a part of history Michael Hill
remembers well. Hill’s father, J. Carl Hill, bought Freestone Point in
1955 with plans of building the largest waterfront resort area south of
Atlantic City. He built swimming pools and amusements, and had plans for a
600-room hotel. But it was gambling that was to produce most of the
In the 1950s, gambling was illegal in Virginia. So
was liquor. But Carl Hill ingeniously took advantage of the fact that all
of the Potomac River is considered part of Maryland. So he built a pier
out into the river and anchored a 200-foot cruise ship at its end for use
as a floating nightclub and gambling spot. Virginia residents who wanted
to play the slot machines had only to step onto the pier to be in Maryland
territory, where liquor and gambling were permitted.
Freestone Point opened in grand fashion in 1957. But
it was so close to Washington, DC, that it drew a lot of attention. Some
of it was unfavorable.
“Some people said, ‘this is a gambling syndicate,
the devil’s work,’ ” laughs Michael Hill. “So the governors of
Maryland and Virginia got together and got the Maryland legislature to
pass a law that said you had to be able to walk from Maryland shores in
order to have slot machines.”
The new law wiped out Carl Hill’s resort in a
hurry. It closed after only two short years of operation. Hill later sold
Freestone Point to the American Hawaiian Steamship Company, which planned
to use the land for an oil port. That never happened. The land became
deserted and wild again, and remained that way for several decades.
When Freestone Point closed, the Hills prospered in
other ways. Carl Hill opened a crab house on the Maryland side of the
river and installed the slot machines there. He provided boat
transportation across the river for Virginia residents who wanted to
gamble. In 1970 he opened the Pilot House Restaurant.
Something for Everyone
Much of Woodbridge today revolves around the Route 1
corridor, which parallels I-95. It is home to countless strip malls, car
dealerships and fast-food restaurants. But scattered along the five-mile
stretch of four-lane highway are some interesting antique stores, like
Featherstone Square Antique Mall, which claims to be the largest antique
mall in Virginia.
The Lazy Susan
Dinner Theatre has been in continuous operation since 1974, serving a
hearty meal and some tasty theater to loyal locals and visitors.
Just across the Occoquan River, situated high on a
hill above Route 1, sits another piece of old Woodbridge, the Lazy Susan
Dinner Theatre. It is one of the oldest professional dinner theaters in
the Washington, DC, area. In continuous operation since 1974, the
family-owned theater offers a plentiful Pennsylvania Dutch-style buffet
and four productions a year.
Like the Pilot House, the Lazy Susan has found it a
challenge to remain profitable in an area where people have so many
options for spending their money.
“We’re very careful about how we run this
place,” says Karol Kaldenbach,
who has managed the theater for the past 21 years. “We watch our
overhead, and we try to keep our shows family-oriented.”
The formula works. The Lazy Susan has a loyal local
patronage. Like many other artistic endeavors, passion is the other key
ingredient in the Lazy Susan’s success. There is a palpable sense of
excitement when you enter the theater, which just opened Big River, the musical adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With a smile,
Kaldenbach says it’s one of her favorite productions.
Waterfront recreation is perhaps the crown jewel of
Woodbridge leisure life. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Leesylvania
State Park. The 512-acre park, which opened in 1992, represents the next
chapter in the history of Freestone Point. American Hawaiian Steamship
owner Daniel Ludwig donated half the value of the land as a tax write-off,
paving the way for the creation of the most heavily visited day-use park
in the Virginia state park system.
For two years
during the late 1950s, Freestone Point was a popular resort area and
gambling spot. The S.S. Freestone and its slot machines were the main
Leesylvania State Park features some of the best
public boating ramps and facilities on the Potomac. It boasts a half mile
of beach, six miles of hiking trails, group camping, pavilions, a
handicapped-accessible fishing pier (at the site of the old gambling ship
pier), and plenty for history buffs. The site of the old Lee house is
worth the hike, as is the walk to a Civil War battery perched high on a
river bluff. The wildlife also is spectacular.
“You’ll see eagles sometimes, and herons, ducks
and beavers,” says Brendon
Hanafin, assistant park manager. “It’s a wild place in Woodbridge
— one of the last remaining places.”
Hanafin is particularly proud of the park’s new
visitor’s center, completed two years ago. It offers wildlife-related
multi-media and hands-on learning opportunities for children and adults. A
museum retraces the history of Freestone Point from its colonization
through the days of the gambling ship.
But Hanafin says what most people like best about the
park is its beauty. From upland forests to coastal plains, the park offers
an interesting assortment of gorgeous Virginia topography. It’s also a
haven for water sport enthusiasts, and has some of the best bass fishing
on the Potomac River.
The River Is the Future
At a cozy table overlooking Neabsco Creek, Pilot
House owner Michael Hill wonders about the future of Woodbridge. He
believes he can remain successful as long as he continues to offer the
best seafood and service he can. He says the big chain restaurants can’t
compete with him there. He’ll continue to serve his regular customers,
some of whom have been coming to the Pilot House for 30 years, as well as
those who are discovering his place for the first time.
Leesylvania State Park offers a half-mile of sandy Potomac River
Beach from fun and frolic.
Genes are in Hill’s favor. He clearly inherited his
father’s optimistic entrepreneurialism.
Hill believes that as in past colonial days, the
river will be a big part of Woodbridge’s future. Its mostly undeveloped
river front is turning out to be a gold mine for developers.
At the north end of Woodbridge, not far from the site
of the old wooden toll bridge, is Belmont Bay, a community of upscale
homes springing up on the banks of the Occoquan River. Plans are big for
this area. A modern commuter railroad station already has been
constructed, as has the Ospreys at Belmont Bay, a championship golf
course. Development will eventually include a convention center.
Further south, in the Cherry Hill area of Woodbridge,
plans are moving forward for another upscale waterfront development.
But the Woodbridge waterfront has a simpler meaning
to Michael Hill — it is home. He has lived or worked on Neabsco Creek
since he was three years old.
“Most of the people in Woodbridge don’t know
anything about the waterfront,” he says. “Most of them are here for
five years and then they leave. It’s a very transient area. There are a
handful of us who have been here a long time. Most came here and didn’t
plan on staying. They just liked it so much they never left.”
If You Go
Discover the natural beauty of the Potomac River
front at Leesylvania State Park.
Plenty of activities for the entire family. For the naturalist, there is
hiking, canoeing and bird watching. Sportsmen and water enthusiasts will
find the boating and fishing activities endless. History lovers can wander
through the plantation grounds of Revolutionary War hero “Lighthorse”
Harry Lee, the father of General Robert E. Lee, or learn about Freestone
Point, the gambling resort of the 1950s (703-670-0372).
A scene from
the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre’s past production of Big
A fairly new waterfront attraction, the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers a stunning view of
Virginia’s coastal wetlands. Once a high-tech government facility used
during the ’60s and ’70s for “Star Wars” defense research, today
the land is home to many species of waterfowl and other wetlands wildlife.
Tours by appointment only (703-690-1297).
Golfers may want to check out the Ospreys at Belmont Bay, a new championship 18-hole golf course.
Starting high on a bluff overlooking the Occoquan River, the course gently
descends to the river, with hills, wetlands and ponds (703-497-1384).
Shoppers will enjoy browsing the antique shops along
Route 1. The largest is Featherstone
Square Antique Mall. Billed as the largest antique mall in the state,
it offers more than 100,000 square feet of space and over 200 dealers
is one of Woodbridge’s most prominent landmarks. The huge outlet mall
has more than 220 outlet stores.
Another popular shopping spot is Potomac Mills, a mega-mall with more than 220 brand-name outlet
stores and 25 eateries (800-VA-MILLS).
Chapel Christian Events Center, which seats 4,000 people, hosts large
Christian events, and attracts some of the best Christian music talent and
For quaint, waterside dining, the Pilot House Restaurant offers a casual, friendly atmosphere and
plenty of good seafood. From the dining room, the view of Neabsco Creek
and the Pilot House Marina is an eye-pleaser. Nautical decor inside and
out. Open every night but Monday (703-221-1010).
Through July 8, the Lazy
Susan Dinner Theatre presents Big River, the musical adventures of Huckleberry
Finn. Plentiful Pennsylvania Dutch-style food, cozy dining, and
first-class theater. Open every night but Monday (703-550-7384).