Where We Live: Occoquan, in Prince William County, balancing preservation with growth

March 14

Occoquan Mayor Earnie Porta was playing tour guide as he recently drove a group of dignitaries around town.

While steering the bus, Porta said the name Occoquan comes from the language of the Doeg Indians, who lived in the woods along the river 13,000 years ago.

Porta recited several facts about the community:

Occoquan was a busy industrial community in 1765 with a gristmill, a foundry and tobacco warehouses. The Mill House Museum, a stone cottage filled with glass, ceramic and metallic relics, was the gristmill’s administrative office.

Occoquan was a strategic spot during the Civil War, but the most important war-related event, said Porta, took place in July 1860. Lincoln supporters erected a pole and banner with his name. Secessionists tore it down, but in the November election, Lincoln won 55 votes in Prince William County, all of which came from Occoquan.

Today, the community in a low-lying area along the Occoquan River is seeking a balance between preserving the natural beauty and moving forward economically. “We don’t necessarily oppose a development of townhouses but want to ensure that homes along the waterfront are protected and that water quality remains high,” said Porta, who has lived in the community for 12 years and has served as mayor for the last eight.

“I consider Occoquan one of the gems in Northern Virginia,” said U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who was aboard the bus with his staff.

“Occoquan has a unique history, and it’s a vibrant, alive place,” he said.

Small-town life: Occoquan, where nearly 1,000 people live on 135 acres, is roughly 25 miles southeast of Washington in Prince William County. The waterfront offers vistas, seagulls in flight and properties facing the river.

Shops with residences above give the scene a small-town flavor. The housing stock is a mix of single-family homes, low-rise condominiums and townhomes. Some of the stone houses and bungalows are adorned with wide porches and decorative wood filigree. New townhouse construction is ongoing.

Mamie Davis Park on Mill Street — an open space with grass, gazebo, benches and steppingstone to a pedestrian walkway along waterfront — sits on the river’s highest navigable point, which was the town’s wharf in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ships were built there. Barges were loaded with grain, flour, logs, fish and ice. Tourists from Washington disembarked, Porta said.

The town was segregated for most of the 20th century. African Americans had to enter the theater through a separate entrance, sit upstairs and couldn’t buy refreshments at the concession stand.

Ogle Harris & Sons Grocery Store, founded in the early 1900s and in operation until 1972, was the center of the black commercial district. Today, Ogle Harris’s descendants still live in Occoquan. Ebenezer Baptist Church, founded in 1883 by a former slave who came from Texas after the Civil War, is still in use.

Small-town life today is epitomized by the post office. “We don’t get our mail delivered. We have to come and get it,” Porta said.

Trails and transit: A new park at the northwest end of town is in the offing. Five trails provide opportunities to hike, bike and walk. Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers meet, is a year-round destination in Woodbridge. Prince William Forest Park is a short drive southeast.

Giant and Safeway are close, and in-town retail — florist, beader, stationery, hair salon, pet shop, jeweler, tattoos, art, rugs, antiques, upholsterer, spa, fashion, drinking-dining establishments — is plentiful.

“The commute downtown can be tough if you’re not on the HOV lanes,” said Porta, but slugging is popular. People park in commuter lots and get in line to hitch.

Virginia Railway Express provides service between Woodbridge and Union Station and L’Enfant Plaza. Amtrak operates from Woodbridge, Manassas and Quantico.

Living there: Occoquan, Zip code 22125, is bordered on the northeast by the Occoquan River; on the southeast by Boundary Branch; on the southwest by a line from Balleywhack Creek to Boundary Branch; and on the Northwest by the new park and crest of the hill to Balleywhack Creek.

“Real estate is typically a little higher than elsewhere in the county because of the town’s uniqueness,” said Greg Wilson, owner of Re/Max Riverside. “If properties are priced appropriately and show well, they go fast.”

Currently, 13 properties are for sale, ranging from $295,000 for a three-bedroom, 21 / 2-bathroom townhouse to $4.4 million for a five-bedroom, five-bathroom single-family house. Twelve properties are under contract, ranging from $304,900 for a two-bedroom, 21 / 2-bathroom condominium to $999,257 for a three-bedroom, 21 / 2-bathroom condominium on the river.

Thirty-eight homes sold in the past year, ranging from $115,000 for a one-bedroom, one- bathroom condo to $850,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home.

Schools: Occoquan Elementary,
Woodbridge Middle, Woodbridge High.

Crime: Prince William County police said there were seven motor vehicle thefts and one assault in 2013.

Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.

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