Finer points of Occoquan’s history are on display in self-guided walking tour


One of the spots featured in the tour is Occoquan’s Mill House Museum, which commemorates the nation’s first automated grist mill. (Bettina Lanyi/For The Washington Post)
July 20, 2014

To a tourist walking through Historic Occoquan, the sleepy hamlet on the Occoquan River may appear no different from any other picturesque small town in the area, albeit with a few more historical plaques: brick streets lined with antique storefronts — cafes, antique stores, a fine paper concern — shaded by leafy trees and flowers hung from postcard-pretty patios. Shopkeepers lean in doorways, chatting with one another or the occasional passerby. The town’s main street, bordering the river on one side, is so narrow that one friend could call out to another on the opposite side.

The town’s sedate appearance belies its history as an influential center of industry and society.

“Our town goes from the 1700s on,” said LaVerne Carson, president of the Business Guild of Occoquan. “No matter what period of American history you like, we just fit into it.”

Carson wrote a self-guided walking tour of the town, recently printed by the guild. The free guide, which is available at the Visitor Center, the Mill House Museum and a number of businesses in town, lists 67 locations of note along Mill Street, Commerce Street and Poplar Alley.

“There’s such a rich history in Occoquan,” said Dolores Elder, curator of the Occoquan Historical Society’s Mill House Museum. The museum commemorates the town’s Merchant’s Mill — the first automated grist mill in the country, which was built in 1759.

Elder said the self-guided tour will highlight some of the finer points of the town’s history. “Maybe as people walk through town, they could be missing some of the important facts,” she noted. “What we’re trying to do is share our history.”

Dogue Native Americans were the earliest known occupants of the site where the town now stands; Occoquan is a name derived from the Dogue word for “at the end of the water.” At the head of the tidewater, Occoquan eventually became a vibrant site for water-borne commerce; the town’s time as a commercial hub came to an end after a fire in 1916 ravaged the town.

Strolling the wooden boards of the town’s Riverwalk, where flocks of ducks swim unimpeded along the Occoquan River on one side, and the porch ceiling fans of Madigan’s Waterfront restaurant stir the sleepy July air on the other, it’s hard to believe this was the site of the Occoquan Shipyards, one of the largest on the Potomac River during the 1800s.

Several blocks farther up, Mamie Davis Park appears tailor-made for a romantic photo op, its lush greenery and flowering bushes abutting a river dock. Yet the walking tour describes a far more dynamic past life for the park as a public wharf — where circuses and traveling shows set up tents, oysters could be bought for 50 cents a bushel, and Washington and Alexandria residents streamed out of boats (having paid 25 cents for a round-trip fare) on a dock.

Carson, who has worked and lived in Occoquan for 38 years and was raised “up the road” in Burke, said she grew up on stories about the town. She assembled the guide for the past 15 years, and she said the most challenging part of writing it was the editing: “I just had to leave lots of it out. Otherwise, it’d be like reading ‘War and Peace.’ . . . My parents banked here, my grandparents came here to shop at the little general stores and so forth, so I’ve known a lot of stories about Occoquan . . . and when you start talking to people who’ve been born and raised here, you hear so many stories that are noteworthy. You know, it’s part of your daily life.”

Carson hopes the guide will make tourists take a second look at the picturesque town, and perhaps return for a closer look at its history.

“I like to pick stuff up and read about it, and I was hoping that’s what would happen here — maybe with the guide, [visitors] will pick us up, read about it, and maybe they’ll remember us when they’re coming back next time,” she said.

Lanyi is a freelance writer.

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