Prince William County: A Peaceful Getaway from Bustling Washington

by Dorothea S. Michelman

Enshrouded by early morning fog, the imposing statue of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson imparted a ghostlike air to the melancholy expanse of Manassas Battlefield National Park during our recent visit, a poignant reminder of the many thousands of lives lost in the First and Second Battles of Manassas fought here in 1861 and 1862.

Manassas Battlefield is perhaps the best-known historic site in Prince William County, 35 miles from Washington and a county too often dismissed as a convenient “drive-through” en route from Florida to New York. Yet within its borders lie a host of treasures awaiting discovery, for both drive-through travelers and the “folks next door”: in a word, the perfect getaway for Washington area residents.

Founded in 1731, the county honoring King George II’s second son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, originally included Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Fauquier before it was reduced to its present size in 1759 – its remaining 348 square miles offering the visitor a bountiful array of attractions and activities to explore.

The misty skies cleared as we left the battlefield for Manassas, which in 1856 was a railroad junction linking Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. with the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond, and whose strategic location led to two tragic clashes between North and South.

Rebuilt after the Civil War, Manassas retained its small-town dimensions throughout much of the following century, and much of its original ambience can still be seen today, particularly in Manassas’s historic Old Town district, where the original railroad depot now serves as the Historic Manassas Visitor Center. I was pleased to find a small artist colony flourishing within the walls of various Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings, a hint of the past in harmony with more recent traditions.

With the sun now dancing merrily on signs welcoming the visitor to art galleries, studios and boutiques, our first call was at the Creative Brush Studio – cozily tucked into the renovated Opera House – where we met artist Mary Reilly and her current project, a portrait in oil. From there we strolled down to Manassas Clay, where we watched some forty potters transforming their earthy medium into works both practical and a delight to the eye. Without question, Manassas has come a long way from its early days as “Manassas Junction” – and even earlier, as our visit to the Manassas Museum quickly revealed. The Museum’s interpretive journey through Northern Virginia Piedmont history presents a rich tapestry of the region’s past, its various threads enhanced by exhibits of prehistoric tools and Civil War objects, photographs and documents.

Are you interested in military history? Then head for Manassas Regional Airport and the Freedom Museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Here you will find both a fascinating collection of vintage aircraft, photographs, and other artifacts dating from the beginning of the 20th century onward and special museum activities including air shows and fly-ins.

Prince William County is also home to Occoquan, whose name is derived from the Dogue Indian word meaning “at the end of the water,” referring to its location at the end of navigation on the Occoquan River, a tributary of the Potomac. Founded in 1734, Occoquan was once a thriving mill town and port, although these days it is better known as a popular shopping destination. Undaunted by fire, flood or hurricanes, this old riverfront town has successfully reinvented itself as an artist’s community, welcoming visitors to over 100 specialty stores, outdoor dining, and an evening guided “Haunted Tour” in search of local ghosts, who are apparently fascinated by modern-day electrical devices (they reputedly enjoy turning lights on and off and switching thermostat settings) but are otherwise thoroughly harmless. If you prefer to search on your own, the local visitor information center will be happy to provide “ghost walk” information.

History buffs will enjoy a visit to Dumfries, chartered in 1749 and once the largest town in Virginia. Home of the noted Weems-Botts Museum, whose building and furnishings encompass the 18th through 20th centuries, it was here that Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825) wrote the first biography of our first president, “Life of George Washington,” and popularized the cherry tree tale so familiar to generations of American schoolchildren. A later owner of this building was Benjamin Botts, who defended Aaron Burr at his 1806 trial for treason.

For the dedicated shopper, Woodbridge presents Potomac Mills Mall, a shopper’s paradise of 220 stores and a top Virginia attraction. Meanwhile, theatergoers can revel in Woodbridge’s thespian fare with dinner and drama at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theater, where sumptuous Pennsylvania Dutch-style meals usher in one of four annual theater productions.

Outdoor enthusiasts will not lack for temptations in Prince William County, from selecting a golf course to boating, fishing and hiking and a variety of regional parks to explore, as well as Leesylvania State Park in Woodbridge, Manassas National Battlefield Park and Prince William National Forest in Triangle. At Leesylvania State Park, we followed the Lees Woods Trail to take a look at the site of the former Lee family plantation, where Revolutionary War hero “Light-Horse Harry” (and father of Robert E. Lee) was born, and then on to the scenic overlook of Neabsco Creek, a trade waterway since the 1700’s and still home to a wide variety of bird species and other wild creatures. Nearby is one of Northern Virginia’s most photographed scenes: a lone chimney from around 1825, all that remains of Fairfax House.

Indeed, for a day, a weekend or longer: Prince William County is truly the perfect getaway.

IF YOU GO: For further information and a free visitor’s guide, contact: Prince William County/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau, 8609 Sudley Road, Suite 105, Manassas, Virginia 20110; toll-free: 1-800-432-1792 or visit:
Restaurants: The Pilot House, Woodbridge, Virginia
Sea, Sea and Co., Occoquan, Virginia
Carmella’s Little Portugal, Manassas, Virginia
Lodgings (a selection) Holiday Inn Express, 171 Dumfries Rd., Dumfries, VA 2202
Wyte Stone Suites, 14525 Gideon Drive, Woodbridge, VA 22192
Qualtity Inn Woodbridge, 1109 Horner Road, Woodbridge,
VA 22121; Tel.1-888-747-8100 (toll-free)
Entertainment: Lazy Susan Dinner Theater, Mail Drawer Q,
US Rt.1 and I-95, Woodbridge, VA 22194;Tel.703-670-7384.

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