In Suburbia, a Brush With the Unexpected

Manager Liz Cronauer cleans a path at Giles Run Meadow, 153 acres of woods and pasture at the former Lorton prison site. The section includes a disc golf course and mountain bike trail.
Manager Liz Cronauer cleans a path at Giles Run Meadow, 153 acres of woods and pasture at the former Lorton prison site. The section includes a disc golf course and mountain bike trail. (Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith/ftwp)

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

The trail, surrounded by wild brush and oak, maple and beech trees, wends along for miles, passing a rusted boxcar abandoned years ago. Farther along, there's an arched, red-brick bridge. The faint whoosh of cars is the only hint that Interstate 95 is not far away.

The path threads through 153 acres of woods and pasture in Fairfax County's southern end that has been off-limits to most of the public for a century. Only the inmates and workers at the former Lorton penitentiary wandered the area in the shadow of the red-brick prison complex.

Last month, the county reopened a section of Laurel Hill Park, named for the plantation built on the site after the Revolutionary War. The barbed wire and no trespassing signs are gone, replaced by mountain bike and walking trails, a picnic area and a disc golf course that is under construction. A wooden dock has been built on a spring-fed fishing pond that, according to prison lore, is inhabited by an oversize smallmouth bass named Big Bubba.

Members of the public "have not been allowed here for 100 years, and now we're saying, 'Come, welcome,' " said Judy Pedersen, Fairfax County Park Authority spokeswoman.

"People will be allowed to leave, unlike the former occupants," Kirk Holley of the authority's planning division said jokingly as he glanced toward the prison dormitories and imposing guard tower.

The parkland's opening is the latest phase in the years-long makeover of the 2,300-acre prison property, which Fairfax bought after the prison was closed in 2001.

What evolved into a penal community that eventually included the prison was established in 1910 as a progressive work farm for nonviolent and short-term prisoners from the District. Some of the most written-about inmates were suffragists arrested in 1917 for picketing the White House.

The workhouse inmates cultivated fields, raised chickens and ran a dairy on the property. Later, Lorton added the forbidding prison and grew into a crowded penal complex, housing more than 7,300 inmates by the mid-1990s. Since the prison closed, the property has slowly been converted into a massive center for recreation, arts and open space.

Most of the land, about 1,200 acres, went to the park authority, which opened the 400-acre Laurel Hill golf course there in 2005.

Across the site, a private arts foundation is working to convert the workhouse into an arts center, with studios, galleries and performance space. A Cold War museum is planned for the area that once included two Nike missile sites. The park authority has plans for a sports complex and an equestrian facility that would be built in partnership with a nonprofit group.

The newly opened section of the park is called Giles Run Meadow and includes the disc golf course and mountain bike trail. In addition to the trails and pond, there's a 13-acre meadow perfect for kite flying, setting off model rockets and just running around.

Ron Lipscomb, who worked for the D.C. Department of Corrections from 1973 to 1997 and now works there for a maintenance and security company, remembers when the atmosphere was far different.

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