Occoquan – An Oasis and Little-Known Gem in VA
By Bob Tagert
Occoquan – An Oasis and Little-Known Gem in VA
The comments in the sidebar were provided by the Occoquan Historical Society and gave us cause to make this month’s Road Trip a jaunt to the quaint little burg of Occoquan. We had lost sight of Occoquan over the years even though back in 1997 we were writing about this beautiful town on a semi regular basis. In our August 1997 issue we wrote about Donna Moomaw from Hour Clock Works. Advertisers that month included Mad, Mad World, Woman’s Wish, Country Morning, The Eclectic Cottage, Hour Clock Works and one of my favorites, Café Rochambeau on Commerce Street. These are gone now, but some remain, like the Virginia Grille and historic Occoquan Inn. What was once C & C Restaurant and Bar is now Madigan’s Waterfront. Lets’ take a stroll along the River Walk.
As I mentioned, it has been many years since I have been to Occoquan. Back then the town was beautiful but in need of a facelift. Since then some of the buildings along Mill have been completely renovated while historical properties just got an uptick. The most impressive addition is the River Walk promenade along the Occoquan River. It is a nice shady respite on hot summer days. The restaurants that front the River Walk have delightful areas for outdoor dining or a just to enjoy a cool libation. Moving toward the headwaters of the Occoquan River you will come to River Mill Park. From here you can see the man-made waterfall on the opposite bank and farther up the river the rock formations which turn the water white.
There are many fine restaurants in Occoquan including Madigan’s Waterfront, a casual river side restaurant with patio seating and a tiki bar specializing in seafood, steaks and pasta. The Secret Garden Café, a relaxed restaurant in an 1840 home with a garden patio, serving American fare with a global twist. On Poplar Alley you will find the Cock & Bowl, a Belgian fare restaurant with a sizable beer lineup. Other restaurants include the Virginia Grille, Occoquan Inn, Bistro L’Hermitage, The Electric Palm Restaurant and Layla’s Lebanese Restaurant which was formerly located in the 900 block of King Street in Old Town Alexandria.
There are two hundred years of history in Occoquan. One of those buildings is the home of the Mill House Museum. In the latter part of the 18th century, the Quaker Nathaniel Ellicott purchased what remained of the original iron works complex established by John Ballendine in the 1750s and converted it to milling operations. His main, or Merchants Mill, was advanced for the time, and may have been the first automated gristmill in the young United States of America. The main mill continued to be used in one fashion or another until 1924 when a generator fire in the Occoquan Electric Light and Power Company destroyed the main structure. Although the small attached Mill House, where the mill’s administrator worked, remained unscathed, decades of subsequent neglect led to its near collapse. Eventually the mill House was turned over to the town of Occoquan, who leases it to the Occoquan Historical Society for use as a museum.
If you like to shop, Occoquan has an abundance of antique and home décor stores, galleries and art studios, apparel shops, jewelry and specialty shops. If spending some time outdoors is a priority and you want to get up close and personal with the river, you can rent kayaks riverside or Rivershore Charters can provide you with Occoquan River charters that will take you up and down the river and let you experience all the river has to offer.
Occoquan is a short drive from Old Town Alexandria – an average of 20 miles depending on the route you take. I avoid the Beltway and I-95 at all costs so I recommend taking the George Washington Parkway via Mount Vernon as far as it will take you to Route 1 and then head south. This way you avoid all of the lights on Route 1 and the traffic on the Beltway. Besides that, the Parkway makes for a pretty drive just about any time of the year. July is a good month take a break from the throngs of tourists that are in our fair city this time of the year and make this short road trip a priority. You might just want to call in sick in the middle of the week……
1890’s – Cyclists clubs from D.C. and Alexandria find Occoquan a unique destination for a weekend ride.
June 1910 – The Buick Motor Company sponsors a road trip to Occoquan for a day of fishing. “If the fish don’t bite a good chicken dinner can be found at the Alton Hotel”
1910-1915 – The Washington Post sponsors many auto road trips from offices located in Washington, D.C. through northern Virginia. Occoquan is 25.5 miles from the newspaper building.