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Photo courtesy Discover Prince William & Manassas, VA
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Photo by Chris Dovi
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Numbering as the stars are the times I've cut over to U.S. 1 on my way back from Washington, hoping to bypass the creep of I-95. Inevitably, I find myself inching no faster than I was on the interstate. And too many times to count, I've noted the historical markers for places such as the Weems-Botts Museum and historic Occoquan. After finally visiting those sites, I'd recommend a detour next time you're stalled in Northern Virginia.
Take for instance Weems-Botts, which sounds more like a historic bait shop than a prime piece of 18th-century real estate once owned by no less than George Washington's most famous biographer, Parson Mason Locke Weems. Located across the street from a grouping of unremarkable apartments in Dumfries, the historic 1790s house is well worth a pit stop. The tiny town of Dumfries once was North America's third largest port, but today it hardly would be described as bustling. That may be bad for business at the Weems-Botts Museum (703-221-2218 or historicdumfries.com ), but the dearth of crowds means specialized attention for the weary traveler who drops in.
Joann Barron, the museum's director, greets tourists in a full-length black Colonial-era gown. From the Algonquian Indians who inhabited this sheltered port for more than 5,000 years, to the Scottish-descended English colonists who arrived in the 1600s to make this Virginia's first continuously chartered town, she spins rich history that spans ages.
Worth the price of admission ($4 for adults, $2.50 for kids) is Barron's take on Parson Weems. The inventor of America's most famous apocryphal creation myth, Weems told the story of a young George Washington and his saintly confession to having chopped down his father's cherry tree. Besides embellishing Washington's legend, the parable served to make Weems nearly untouchable as he committed the then-scandalous act of teaching slaves and freed blacks to read.
Sprinting forward to the Civil War, Barron tells how the Quaker town was so opposed to secession that it was quarantined by the Confederates. Free blacks in nearby Batestown stepped up to feed and clothe the Quakers who'd been so kind to them before the war. If the house's history doesn't grab you, Barron's also got yarns about the supposed ghosts that linger there. "We're considered the second most haunted house in Virginia," she says.
By the early 1800s, the home belonged to Benjamin Botts, a prominent lawyer who helped defend Vice President Aaron Burr during his 1807 treason trial in Richmond. Burr beat the rap, thanks largely to Botts' brilliance, Barron says. But three years later, Botts died in the infamous 1811 Richmond Theater fire. His restless spirit is among those alleged to haunt the house.
Perhaps equally rich in history is the picturesque Occoquan, a few miles north on U.S. 1. Founded in 1765 as a mill town near the end of the Occoquan River (a Potomac tributary), the place today is filled with quaint shops and restaurants squeezed into six tight, walkable square blocks. Your first stop should be Merchant's Mill, the town's museum and all that remains of the nation's oldest automated gristmill. Occoquan was also a Quaker enclave, raided before the war by secessionist-sympathizing soldiers who seized a flag bearing Lincoln's image from a pole erected by local abolitionists.
There's also the requisite town ghost tour, led by Kay Pietrewicz, a history buff and self-styled paranormal investigator (571-572-9410 or haunted-occoquan.com ).
Without a doubt, the rocky Occoquan River is the town's defining feature. Earnest Porta, the longtime mayor and a one-man economic development tour-de-force, leads twice-monthly kayak tours, and he's recently secured a grant to create a handicapped-accessible canoe and kayak launch. He also touts several major biking and hiking trails nearby.
From the upscale Zagat-listed Bistro L'Hermitage ( bistrolhermitage.com ) to the homey feel of the Secret Garden Café ( stonehouserestaurants.com ) or the river-view seafood offerings of Madigan's Waterfront ( madiganswaterfront.com ), Occoquan also has plenty of dining options.
Whether you call the battle Bull Run or First Manassas, it was America's first "enthusiastic flush of war," as one witness put it. That was before having all his romantic notions of battle washed away in a veritable river of blood on July 21, 1861. About 5,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in this epic kickoff to the ground campaigns that defined the rest of the Civil War. And the location — just 40 miles from Washington and 80 from Richmond — was so good, the armies met there again a year later.
Today, it's 5,000 acres of fields, trails, somber memorials and interactive museum exhibits, where "geeking out is very possible," says John Reid (shown at right), a National Park Service ranger with 13 years of accumulated knowledge he's willing to share with guests. discoverpwm.com .