Columnist

What are the details on the remains of a hydroelectric power plant in Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, on the western edge of Fairfax County, near Clifton? A sign at the park entrance states it was built in 1925. The flow of the creek (Bull Run) seems minimal there. Did it provide power for most of the county, or just the town of Clifton? That area was surely considered the boondocks in those days.

Brad Rothermel, Annandale

Even people in the boondocks enjoy a nice serving of electricity every now and then, Brad. And it was people like that, as well as people who wanted to make money from people like that, who were the audience for an advertisement that appeared in the Fairfax Herald on June 25, 1926. It read:

“Your opportunity to share in developing one of the natural resources of our community — something that benefits you. Your Power Plant brought to your front door for your convenience; brightening your home and lightening your labors.

“Does this mean anything to you? Are you going to let this opportunity slip by, not doing your part in its fulfillment? Come in with us now and become a pioneer in this community project. It is yours for the asking. ACT NOW. Bull Run Power Co. Manassas, Virginia. This Ad Will Not Appear Again.”

The graffiti-covered remains of a hydroelectric power plant built in 1926 at Bull Run, near Clifton in Fairfax County. Today it's in Overlook Hemlock Regional Park. (Photo by Brad Rothermel)

The ad confirmed speculation that had been bubbling in the area for more than a year. As early as January 1925 local papers were printing reports of efforts to use water to produce electricity. “Cheap Power for Manassas” read the headline over a story in the Herndon News Observer that month: “Unverified reports are circulating in the county to the effect that a project is on foot to furnish the city of Manassas and surrounding country with cheaper electric power developed from the waters of Bull Run.”

Note that the story said “with cheaper electric power.” This wasn’t a case of bringing power to a place that didn’t have it — though, certainly, backers were hoping to gain new customers. This was a case of changing how the power was created. At the time, power for Manassas was supplied by a municipal steam plant. (Answer Man isn’t sure how that was powered. Coal?)

The story noted, “As water power is generally much cheaper than that produced by the most improved steam equipment, reports of the Bull Run project, if true, will interest users of light and power in Manassas.”

According to a 1964 story in the Northern Virginia Sun, the Bull Run Power Co. was started by William B. Doakes. A dam of earth, stone, concrete and wood was built about three-quarters of a mile upstream from Yates Crossing. The dam backed up Bull Run, creating a seven-acre lake. Water spun two turbines, creating lovely electricity.

Clifton was the first town to get power from the hydro plant, in the fall of 1928. A year later Manassas started getting its juice from the Bull Run plant.

According to the Sun article, the plant was closed in 1940, its metal later salvaged during the scrap iron drives of World War II. Answer Man found a 1941 article describing how the Bull Run company had been taken over by the Prince William Electric Cooperative, which was putting into service a $200,000 plant that used five diesel engines to produce power. Fossil fuel wins again!

All that remains of the old plant today are a pair of graffiti-covered cinder-block buildings, looking like Cold War blockhouses plopped down in the woods.

Helping a historic hospital

If you read this column, you probably like local history. And if you like local history you are probably aware that Children’s Hospital has been a part of this city’s history for a very long time indeed — since 1870, in fact.

From the very beginning it has cared for all children, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. How can it do that? Because of generous people in our community.

Now, you don’t have to be that generous. Even a modest amount — $20, $50 — will help in our efforts to raise $400,000 this year. You can make a tax-deductible contribution by sending a check or money order (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online, go to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital. Thank you.

Write answerman@washpost.com.