A dozen or so miles south of the nation’s capital, the Occoquan River flows into the Potomac, its waters forming a natural border between Fairfax and Prince William County. About four miles inland, and just north of the town of Woodbridge, three tall bridges span the river. Two (I-95, Route One) send motorists over the water while another supports the tracks for VRE commuter trains running between Fredericksburg and Washington.
In days gone by, this river’s crossing point was located a stones throw east of the railroad tracks, in the town of Colchester. George Mason II, the youngest son of George Mason, built a wooden bridge there sometime around 1795. In colonial days, horse riders and wagons crossed the river at Colchester on a ferry.
Like Dumfries, six miles southward, Colchester was lined up for glory. The Occoquan made it a perfect place (or so it seemed) for a tobacco seaport. Weary travelers, who could only muster a dozen or so miles each day on the path cut out by Native Americans, stayed overnight in Colchester’s taverns. A rolling road brought in tobacco stuffed in hogsheads from the piedmont planters. The town became a main stop for the mail.
Colchester, founded in 1754, flourished for several decades, but partly due to silting, both it and Dumfries faded from glory. Dumfries hangs on with help from Route One, which cuts through the town. No such good fortunes came Colchester’s way. The busy highway bypassed the town, which was reduced to farm land. It then an unincorporated area, a small bedroom community whose main road dead-ends at the river.
Because almost nothing is left of old Colchester, I came late to discovering it. After seeing it on a historic map recently, I realized I needed to get my butt in gear and find out more about it.
To get to Colchester from Alexandria, one has, more or less, the same two options as travelers in colonial days. With some exceptions, Route 1 follows a trail carved out by Native Americans, as does King’s Highway/Telegraph Road. I took the latter, which passes over the Fairfax County Parkway before meeting up with Route 1 at Pohick Church. Built in 1767 with a congregation whose roots go back to the 1720s, this church has been described as “arguably the most historically significant church in Fairfax County.” George Washington and George Mason served as vestrymen and it has ties to Colchester.
At this intersection, 99% of motorists either turn left to go towards Fort Belvoir or take a right and head south on Route 1 for Woodbridge or to pick up I-95 at Lorton. After a long wait at the light, I proceeded straight, the name changing from Telegraph to Old Colchester Road.
The four-mile drive to Colchester is winding, scenic and historic. At one point, overhanging tree limbs form a canopy of shade. Colonial farmers and merchants, Revolutionary soldiers and armies, workers both enslaved and free, travelers and area residents such as Washington and Mason all used this roadbed (variations were made). The King’s Highway was part of the north-south route that was the first through Virginia and connected the colonies from Boston to Williamsburg.
About a mile and a half in, the Old Colchester Road, after crossing over Pohick Creek, meets up with Gunston Road. A left takes you to Mason Neck and Gunston Hall, Mason’s historic mansion and plantation. A right takes you to Route 1. Nearby is Cranford United Methodist Church. Built in 1730 on the site of the first Pohick Church, this special ground is one of the earliest sites of a religious institution in Fairfax County.
Continuing towards Colchester, one soon sees Mason Park West on the right hand side. The National Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, Inc. (W3R®-US), in partnership with the National Park Service, W3R® state, and related organizations erected four interpretive signs. Included is one that gives a brief info on Colchester.
Finally, Colchester arrives. Unfortunately, it is a ghost of its old self. Fortunately, the late Edith Moore Sprouse brings it all back with her book, “Colchester: Colonial Port on the Potomac.” Copies are available at the Gunston Hall Gift Shop. Her fully foot-noted and illustrated book is a treasure.
Just four years after Alexandria and Dumfries got their official start, Peter Wagener founded Colchester in 1753 (His home in England was near the town of Colchester). Hugh West laid out 42 half-acre lots in a unique triangle shape. In a sign that prosperity would not come easily, George Mason, who purchased lots in Alexandria and lived closer to Colchester, did not buy any there initially. A couple of taverns popped up, along with a number of dwellings, stores, a blacksmith shop, a tannery and a vineyard. There were three streets - Essex, Fairfax and Wine.
A ferry operated at the foot of Essex (Old Colchester road). Washington used the ferry many times and even had a brush there with the grim reaper in 1791. In his book, “The Nine Lives of George Washington,” William Betts, Jr. writes about the incident. Four of Washington’s horses slipped off the deck, but the carriage managed to stay on.
Colchester was the county’s first chartered town. It prospered for about 40 years, but began to decline in the latter part of the 1700s. In 1780 Thomas Mason built a bridge to replace the ferry, but after the turn of the century, Colchester competed with Occoquan, where Colonel John Hooe built a bridge a mile and a half upstream. Heavy rains in August 1807 damaged both. Mason did not rebuild. This opened the door for Occoquan, which gained the passenger and mail business.
Planting tobacco proved deleterious to the land. As was the case with Dumfries, eroded soils filled the river and caused silting (Situated on the Potomac, Alexandria did not have this problem). Silting is listed as part of Colchester’s downfall, but when asked about it, two professors at George Mason (“Digging Out History,” George Mason Vault 217) pointed to other factors. One said Alexandria took away trade from Colchester. The other talked about the shift in the road traffic away from Colchester to Occoquan.
Nan Netherton (“Fairfax County, Virginia, A History”) got straight to the point when she wrote the new road and bridge at Occoquan “rang the death knell” for Colchester. Sources mentioned a fire in 1815, although Sprouse said The Alexandria Gazette had no coverage of it.
In later years, Colchester converted to farming before becoming a bedroom community. A marina was built in 1930 and some area residents may remember the Lazy Susan restaurant, which got its start in the 1950s. The homes are not crowded or cookie cutter, and area residents resisted big developments such as the proposed “King’s Landing” in the mid 60s.
The only remaining historical structure is the Colchester Inn (Fairfax Arms Tavern). It’s a private home so I quickly snapped my photo from the road and kept going. Built around 1753, the one and a half story building with a stone foundation is one of the oldest in Fairfax County. Innkeepers took pride in providing the utmost in hospitality. John Davis (Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States), wrote:
On the side of this bridge stands a tavern, where every luxury that money can purchase is to be obtained at the first summons: where the richest viands cover the table and where ice cools the Maderia that has been thrice across the ocean. (Library of Congress HABS VA No. 413)
Colchester has lost its history, but there is a silver lining. Its isolation has proven beneficial to archaeologists who have been conducting digs. Colchester Archaeological Research Team has uncovered human activity from the colonial days, as well as the Native American period. They blog their findings at “Close Encounters of the Colchester Kind.” Their “Virtual Colchester” project documents their findings. “Virtual Representation of the 18th Century Port Town of Colchester Virginia,” by Marion Constante, took home the bronze medal at the GIS Day Excellence competition.
Fairfax County also has plans and initiatives to protect the natural resources nearby and interpret the history of the town, as well as documenting the surrounding wetlands and woods of Colchester Park and Preserve.
So yes, this is a lost town so to speak, but its history is slowly coming back to us. Perhaps when you cross the river, you will think about this historic place, and maybe even wander along the Old Colchester Road.