In criminal parlance in New York, "going up the river" was long a euphemism for being sent to Sing Sing Prison, now nominally disguised as the Ossining Correctional Facility. Until the other day we didn't realize it, but "going down the river" for Washington criminal wrongdoers meant a boat trip on the Potomac to the Lorton Reformatory for felons or its next door neighbor for misdemeanants, the old occoquan workhouse.
The ongoing fuss by Fairfax County residents about the existence of Lorton and the transfer of additional prisoners from the D.C. Jail sent us to the city library in hope of finding out how Lorton got there in the first place.
But a footnote deserves first attention.
Lorton, first occupied by prisoners in 1916, was reached until the 1930s only by water. Boats took prisoners and supplies down the river. They returned items, such as bricks, made on the Lorton grounds.
How did Lorton Reformatory get there?
It should interest Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) and critics of the prison's existence that at no time in the decade of the 1910s, when Lorton was established, was there any serious consideration to building a D.C. prison within the District of Columbia's boundaries, even though much vacant land existed at the time.
From 1862 onward, District felons had been imprisoned at federal prisons, mainly at Leavenworth, Kans., and Atlanta, Ga. In 1912, it was decided they should be imprisoned closer to home. Congress approved a D.C. prison to be located at what is now Fort Belvoir, but the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, owner of George Washington's neighboring estate, objected. Pressured by Congress, the District turned the Belvoir tract over to the Army and bought the Lorton reservation instead.
The District paid $57,851 for the 2,543 acres of Fairfax County land that comprised the original Occoquan-Lorton reservation. That's (sob!) $44 an acre. And it's not even certain the District will ever benefit from the investment: The U.S. government holds title to the land.