I was alone on the wide sidewalk for as far as I could see. I arrived early in the day because I wanted to watch this street, this town start the day. What quickened my pace lie just ahead. I could hear it. It moved with determination, a nod to those who harnessed its power centuries ago.
It was the vision of one early resident who took advantage of this rushing body of water and saw an economic opportunity that would put the town on the map. A place today solidified by historic locations, one-of-a-kind eateries, and shops.
He was described as a “well-established gentleman” and a life of ease was his for the taking. But Nathaniel Ellicott was not going to languish in leisure. Two hundred and twenty-three years after he arrived, the residents of this small, but thriving, river-based Virginia town, named Occoquan, have him to thank for their part of this beautiful state.
Ellicott’s path would be one of a miller and entrepreneur, and ultimately, a town founding father. In 1795 he purchased 250 acres in Occoquan, which included mills and mill houses. He upgraded the mill complex and successfully petitioned the state legislature for permission to build a wooden toll bridge across the Occoquan River. The bridge was completed in 1797. This construction project had far-reaching economic benefits for Occoquan. It steered lucrative horse and stage traffic to his town and away from the competing town by opening a road through Occoquan.
Just 22 miles south of Washington, D.C., modern day travelers can easily access Historic Occoquan from the primary Florida to Maine artery, Interstate 95.
Today, Historic Occoquan can still be described as it was in 1801 by John Davis: “Yet no place can be more romantic than the view of Occoquan to a stranger…while every face wears contentment, every gale wafts health…” Davis was not a mere tourist. The young English sailor and eventual novelist was hired by Ellicott to tutor his children. Davis compiled his admiration for Occoquan in a book, “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America.” Published in 1803 and still available in print.
For a geography that is the size of Vatican City, the town offers a lot to see, hear, and taste.
“Part of the charm of this town is that we don’t have chains (stores). The majority of the time when you enter the local shops you will interact directly with the owner – either when making a purchase or asking questions about their merchandise,” said Bryan Reese, owner of BAR-3 Enterprises, which developed and maintains the Historic Occoquan website.
To experience this sense of community and preserved heritage you have to do two things: park your car and walk. Only by foot can you appreciate the volume of merchants – approximately 245 - in Historic Occoquan. The best place to begin is at the Visitors Center at the corner of Mill Street and Washington Street. Pick up a map of Historic Occoquan and make your way up Mill Street.
Along the way on Mill Street you will see six sights on the town’s Historical Marker Trail. But you might need nourishment, a treat to pick up your step. For that you must stop at the fine chocolate maker, NazBro Chocolates. When I told Omar Naz that I was going to buy something, he said,
“You can just buy something, you have to try it! Have you had my fudge? That is penuche, the first flavor of fudge when fudge was first made.”
Does this knowledge of confections matter? Every delectable bite tells you that it does.
It’s easy to linger at NazBros, but stay with me! Let’s keep going. When you reach the top of Mill Street a knowledgeable docent at the Mill House Museum will captivate you with Occoquan’s varied and rich history – from Captain John Smith, the first European to have visited the area in 1608, to its 1088-spindle cotton mill, Civil War involvement, and rebirth after natural disaster.
Just outside the museum you will finally see the view, you know, the view that first drew me here: the rushing water of the beautiful Occoquan River. The Occoquan is a tributary of the Potomac River and part of the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. More than 26-miles long, even today it’s a busy waterway. Not with the same traffic as in Ellicott’s time, but with leisure boaters and stunning great blue heron. A circular walking area highlights River Mill Park along the river with ample benches for bird-watching. Want to be closer to the action? Walk across the foot bridge and stand close to the raging waterfall.
When you’re ready to return to your discoveries along the Historical Marker Trail, head back down Mill Street. Turn right on Union Street to pass another marker for a building that was once the Hammill Hotel built in 1804. Turn right again onto Commerce Street and let’s explore more Historic Occoquan unique shops.
The unassuming building at 305 Commerce Street may surprise you for two reasons: it ships its products world-wide and the quality of its products is incredible. This is the location of Spinaweb a specialty weaving shop that showcases the talents of its gifted weavers who create blankets, rugs, many other items including speciality orders. I wasn’t leaving empty-handed! A soft, pink scarf was my selection.
Once you exit Spinaweb, you’ll be close to two more Historical Markers on Commerce Street. When you’re ready to step off of the walking tour for a bite to eat then head to Grind n Crepe, also on Commerce Street. How about a breakfast slider with gouda or cheddar? Or an Affogato, two scoops of gelato with an expresso shot, whipped cream, and nuts? I went with the “Aunt Jaime” and I was not disappointed: fresh mozzeralla, fresh tomato, basil so big it was nearly the width of the bread, garlic oil, and cracked pepper. I didn’t have time to get there, but the owner of Grind n Crepe also owns Third Base Pizza and Custard, located just a little further down on Commerce Street.
While Historic Occoquan has maintained its small-town unique feel, it has also embraced the future. One way to really take in all this town has to offer is to stay in one of the many beautiful residences available on Airbnb. If you want to extend your stay permanently, the Gaslight Landing Luxury Waterfront townhomes in Historic Occoquan might be for you.
Whether you come for an overnight or just for the day, before you head to your car, take a moment to wander through the beautiful Mamie Davis Park on the corner of Mill and Washington Streets. Named to honor this lifelong resident and former mayor, the park was originally a public wharf since the founding of the town. Bushels of oysters could be purchased here for 50 cents, and a trip from Washington, DC or Alexandria to Occoquan was only 25 cents round trip. This was the place of the big top when circuses or traveling shows came to town.
Today, it’s still a place of excitement, but from one-of-a-kind buying and learning experiences and events almost every month. Historic Occoquan is a place where you feel encouraged to make charming discoveries among a town of friends you never knew.
For more information about Historic Occoquan and its monthly events go to: https://historicoccoquan.com