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The historic and quaint town of Occoquan, with its
bounty of small shops, art studios, old houses and restaurants, boasts an
old-fashioned charm that lures thousands of visitors.
Antiques and unique, handmade specialty items can be
discovered all over the picturesque, riverfront town.
Wooden or brick storefronts greet local shoppers and
draw tourists from all over the world, especially during the nationally
known spring and fall arts and crafts shows.
Occoquan is not the usual tourist attraction —
it’s more like visiting an old friend who has worked hard to get your
attention and wants you to enjoy what you see and treats you as part of
the family. It is more than a wonderful experience to visit the
rustic and charming town. This is a community that seems to have stopped
moving and changing over the years, very much like an old postcard
reminiscent of the days when life was slower and happier.
Its mayor the past eight years, Patricia M. Conway,
loves the town as do other town officials and merchants who look forward
to having visitors come to their stores and restaurants. “We liked the place so much that when my husband,
John, retired in 1990, we decided to move into town,” she says. When elected mayor, Conway made sure the town
effected changes to keep pace with the growing number of tourists, as well
as new commercial and residential development. The town has completed
several major projects, including improvements to the traffic flow and
reopening its waterfront to recreational boaters. A new Riverwalk and docking facilities now welcome
visitors to enjoy the waterfront by land and enjoy the town from the
In addition to its historical interest and
significance, Occoquan offers year-round fishing, including the herring
run in the spring, boating facilities and more than 100 shops, boutiques,
antique stores and eateries. Walter Bailey, a former Prince William County history
teacher, is the chairman of the town’s seven-member Architectural Review
Board that strives to keep the town looking as it did in its early
history. “We review and check on building contractors in the
historic district to make sure their work fits into the historic period of
Occoquan,” he says.
Occoquan is listed on the National Register of
Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic District. A former mill town and a natural site for water-borne
commerce from the earliest days of Virginia, Occoquan has survived fires,
a hurricane, flooding and the Civil War.
Towns have been born, have flourished, and many have
died over the course of time. Some of those that died passed unnoticed,
some are mourned throughout history, and some, fortunately, have been
reborn. Occoquan seems to be one of those special towns destined to
Despite the decline of its port and the loss of an
early industrial complex, despite repeated devastating fires, and despite
re-routing of highways, Occoquan has persisted.
The efforts of the townspeople, the merchants and
those interested in history, have created a pleasant little town that
offers fishing and boating, unhurried browsing in shops that display
beautiful crafts and art of long ago, pleasant dining in nearly a dozen
restaurants and, most of all, a chance to stroll for a few minutes through
its charming streets.
Earnie Porta, a board member of Historic Occoquan,
Inc., for the past two years, says, “While we are only a mile or so from
the main highways, first-time visitors find that we offer a much more
relaxed atmosphere than many of the shopping centers in the area.”
He adds, “I like the small-town feel and its
historical significance. We have a nice mixture of people living here and
visitors coming in.”
Occoquan is a Dogue Indian word meaning “at the end
of the water.” It is believed that the Dogues stayed close to the
Occoquan River because of its abundance of fish and the ease of traveling by canoe.
A tobacco warehouse was built as early as 1736 and an
industrial complex began in 1750. By the turn of the century, Occoquan had
forges, gristmills and sawmills, a bake house and storehouses. The
Merchant’s Mill was the first automated gristmill in the nation, in
operation for 175 years until it was destroyed by fire.
Nathaniel Elliott formally established the town in
1804, bringing to fruition industrial and commercial developments that
began at or near the falls of the Occoquan River.
By 1838, the town boasted one of the first cotton
mills in Virginia. Farmers and traders came from as far away as the Blue
Prior to the Civil War, Occoquan’s economy
specialized in a wide variety of goods and services, from shipbuilding and
cotton and gristmill products to trade in cord wood, fish and river ice.
The first commercial ice-storage house in the area was built in the town.
A mail stage route ran through Occoquan as early as
1805. The post office became the main delivery point for letters and
packages between families in the North and South. During 1862, the
Confederate forces under Gen. Wade Hampton wintered in Occoquan in the
Hammil Hotel, which still stands, before their spring campaign.
The dawn of the 20th century saw Occoquan bustling
with grocery stores, a lumber and hardware store, drugstore, millinery,
churches, school, blacksmith, barber, undertaker, bank, doctor and
The town became a social as well as a commercial
center for the area. The Oddfellows Hall became the first opera house in
the area and the Lyric Theater brought people from the surrounding
communities. Circuses and traveling shows set up at the public wharf in
summer and ice skating on the river became the favorite winter activity.
However, a major fire swept Occoquan in 1916 and
destroyed much of the town. U.S. Route 1 opened in 1928 and carried
traffic away from Occoquan and the town was no longer on the main
Finally, in 1972, Hurricane Agnes struck, destroying
many of the buildings, sidewalks and streets along the river’s edge. Any
one of these events could have been enough to wipe away the town, but
Occoquan survived. Townspeople, businessmen and people interested in
history quickly began to rebuild and restore the town everyone enjoys
today — a truly special Virginia town.
Many of the old homes and shops, dating back 200
years, are believed to be haunted with local ghosts, or so say some of the
residents of the town.
Mill Street is the locale of most of the town’s
commercial ventures, along with the Mill House Museum on one end and the
Prince William County Tourist Information Center on the other. In 1758,
Rockledge Mansion, an 11-room stone house that overlooks the town, was
built by manufacturer John Ballendine, under the architectural supervision
of William Buckland. Buckland was also associated with the construction of
George Mason’s Gunston Hall.
Kathy Smith, who has owned Simply Country for the
past 16 years at three different locations, says she first opened a shop
to sell her crafts.
“I soon discovered that I needed more items, so
through the years I’ve added gift items like copper cookie cutters,
prints, bakeware, books, wood crafts, weather vanes, country signs,
antiques and collectibles and military items in honor of my husband,
Gerald, who’s retired from the U.S. Air Force,” says Smith.
Smith adds, “The location has been good to me.
I’ve met a lot of nice, friendly people. In such a small town, nearly
everyone gets to know everyone.”
Mayor Conway says the town has 759 residents. The
five-member council is comprised of Vice Mayor James O’Connor and
council members Pamela Konwin, Leo Smith, James N. Walbert and Barry Dean.
The town administrator and clerk is Claudia A. Cruise. The town treasurer
is Linda Dunnigan.
The Mamie Davis Park occupies a sliver of waterfront
on Mill Street, opposite the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post. It also
provides access to the town’s Riverwalk and boat docks.
Pat Bowen, co-owner of the Golden Goose, a year-round
Christmas shop, has been in business for 30 years and is one of the oldest
continuous merchants in Occoquan.
“You can’t beat the atmosphere here in Occoquan
... there is a strong sense of community involvement that is hard to find
anywhere else,” she says.
Joy Zerby has been a volunteer at the museum for
seven years, spending at least a day a week at the landmark.
She says the reason for her interest is, “I get to
meet so many interesting people from all over the world, including some
who recently came in from Japan.” The museum is located in the only
remaining part of an 18th-century gristmill.
Another person who gets to meet a lot of people is
Rene Cardenas, who has supervised the visitor center for the past nine
“I love my job because I get to meet mostly happy
people. When they come in here for information, they are usually happy
because they are on vacation and they have nothing to do but have a good
time,” he said.
The center has more than 300 different brochures,
providing information on local areas, as well as on Virginia, Maryland and
“We stress to the visitors that the village today
is a quiet, pleasant town uniquely combining the convenience of modern
life with the visible heritage of more than two hundred years of
history,” Cardenas concludes.