This article was written by Stephen E. Phinney in 1995, when he was serving on the Prince William County Historical Commission. It was published in the November, 1997 issue.] Two hundred years ago, a wooden bridge was built over the Occoquan River near its mouth along the Potomac Path, the major highway from Alexandria south ( later called the King’s Highway). Thomas Mason, the owner of the plantation in the area named his plantation “Woodbridge.”
This bridge lasted about 10 years being washed away in 1807 by one of the recurring floods seen on the Occoquan River. But the name of the plantation and of the settlement that grew up in the area remained.
Woodbridge was never incorporated as a town or city despite its history as being the first to be seen by a white man, first land to be patented, first to be settled, and the location of the first County Court House.(1) Today it is a busy, growing community, still at the crossroads of major transportation corridors.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the area was settled by Native American village sites going back a thousand years. The Dogue Indians lived in the area when Captain John Smith sailed into the area in 1608-1609. The area was rich in natural resources which made it an attractive place to live. The first land patent in the area was owned by Thomas Burbage in 1653. One of his land parcels was purchased by Martin Scarlet some time after 1663. Scarlet lived at Deep Hole Plantation near the former Harry Diamond Laboratory off Dawson Beach road. (2)
The George Mason family acquired ownership about 1692 when 534 acres, which is now the site of present day Woodbridge, were purchased from Henry Corbin. The land was passed down in the Mason family to Thomas Mason, the youngest son of George Mason IV of Gunston Hall. Thomas built a plantation on this land and maintained a ferry across the Occoquan River. The land stayed in the Mason family until 1851 when Gerard Mason, the eldest son of Thomas Mason died. The farm was sold to Mr. Sameul Troth for $2,000, ending nearly 160 years of Mason family ownership of these lands. (2)
Thomas Mason’s Ferry was located two miles west of the mouth of the Occoquan River probably adjacent to an existing sanitary pump station near the RF&P railroad bridge, east of Routes 1 and I-95. Virginia Law set the ferry rates at 4 cents a man, 4 cents a horse. His competition was another ferry started in 1791 by Col. John Hooe of Prince William County located in Occoquan. In July, 1796, a wooden bridge was started to cross 105 yards of water. It was completed before June, 1797. Little is known about the bridge itself but Thomas was able charge 6 cents a man, 6 cents a horse.
Hooe continued to be a thorn in Thomas Mason’s side and attempted to build a bridge near his ferry in Occoquan. It appears that this was never completed. In 1807, severe rains washed out the bridge. Thomas had died in 1800 and the family did not have the interest to continue the project.
In 1870, a new bridge was constructed for the northern extension of the RF&P railroad where Thomas Mason’s bridge was located. We don’t know exactly where Mason’s Plantation, “Woodbridge” was located, but there has been evidence of the gatekeeper’s house.
Prince William County was formed from Stafford County in 1731. The Governor’s Council dictated that a Courthouse was needed. The rule was that the courthouse was to be built in the center of the settled area which ran from Alexandria to past Dumfries. Woodbridge was in the center. A courthouse, prison, pillory and stocks, according to law, were to be built. Few records remain. This courthouse remained until 1742 when Fairfax County was created out of the northern part of Prince William. The center of the county moved south to Dumfries.(3,4)
During much of the history of Woodbridge, the area was dominated first by plantations, then farms. Another notable citizen of Prince William County during the Revolutionary and post-war period was William Grayson. He built Belle Air plantation which was located in what is now Marumsco Hills.
More recently, dairy farms dominated the area. The developments in the Belmont area developed from four farms, Marumsco Farm owned by the Bubb family, the Dawson Family, and Corbin Thompson and Egbert Thompson. Farming proved profitable. Farming grew during WW II. By the late 1940’s, dairy processing techniques had changed and smaller farms couldn’t survive. The families retired , selling the land to become one of the first developments in Woodbridge. In addition, the Belmont peninsula has support industry and government projects.(5)
Featherstone Farm, started by a Frank Chambers , was once 440 acres. He ran a dairy business and made a drink concoction called “kumiss.” Kumiss was a “flash-in-the-pan.” The land was farmed until the early 1940’s when the land started to be subdivided for development. From this land Featherstone Shores, Featherstone Terrace, Willowbrook and Marumsco Woods - and an industrial park was formed. (5)
Within the last few years, the center of Woodbridge has grown by leaps and bounds, supporting a moving population with extensive commercial development, services and newer houses, townhouses, and apartments. Woodbridge prides itself today in providing a community haven for increasing numbers of Prince William residents and is embarking on newer paths looking toward the next century.
1. George Brown, A History of Prince William County, Lucy Phinney Editor, Published by Historic Prince William, 1994
2. Steven Shwartzman, Thomas Mason: Young Noble of Prince William County, Unpublished manuscript, Prince William County Historical Commission
3. Fairfax Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William, Vol 1, 2, Gateway Press, Inc, 1987
4. WPA project, Prince William, The Story of Its People and Places, The Bethlehem Club, Manassas, Va, 1988
5. Potomac News, Home Place, Prince William County, a series of articles from the Potomac News, reprinted by the Prince William County Historical Commission