Building Lorton

Building Lorton

Belmont, prison mark Lorton area’s history.

George was not the only Washington in Fairfax County.

Seven miles south of Mount Vernon, the home of the nation’s first president, lived his cousin Lawrence Washington. He owned about 1,000 acres on the north shore of the Occoquan River in Mason Neck, the first area in the county to be claimed by 17th-century explorers who came up into the branches of the Potomac River.

Mason Neck was one of the first areas in present-day Fairfax County to be settled; Gervais Dodson first claimed what was to be Lawrence Washington’s land in the 1650s. The land changed hands a few times until Belmont Plantation, one of the county’s oldest dwellings, was built before 1727 by Thomas Simpson.

The brick house, 25 feet by 19 feet in size, sat on Belmont Plantation, which became Washington’s sometime in the 1780s or 1790s. A modest plantation at about 1,000 acres, Belmont was rich in natural resources, overlooking Belmont Bay. A 1765 advertisement in the Maryland Gazette described it in glowing terms: “There is on the Land about 60 Acres of good Meadow, it abounds in Timber … but above all the Fishery is exceeding valuable.”

Lawrence Washington, who also owned property in Colchester, was a quiet man. He was not given to heavy political involvement as neighbors like George Mason: although Mason was his next-door neighbor (they shared a property line), Mason never mentions Lawrence Washington.

Washington married his first cousin Catherine Foote. He waited a long time to propose to her, as his cousin Lund Washington remarked:

“I have since been informed that [Washington] did not ask Mr. Foote’s [father of Catherine] consent because he knew it would be refused on account of their near relationship, being children of sisters.”

The Washingtons had no children, and when Lawrence died Belmont went to Anne Washington Thompson who lived at Belmont until she died in 1824. Her son took possession of the house after her death and mortgaged the property in pieces when an economic depression caused several local estates (Lexington and Gunston Hall included) to be sold.

A FEW MILES north of the Occoquan River, another building made history in the southernmost part of the county: the Lorton prison.

Finding the conditions at the Washington, D.C. prison deplorable, President Theodore Roosevelt authorized a commission to investigate the situation. The commission recommended a new way of thinking about prisons altogether, and land was condemned for a new D.C. correctional facility in 1910.

Built on 1,155 acres, the Lorton Prison was a “prison without walls.” Its classical design reflected ideals of order, with dormitories instead of cellblocks, an open-air design that meshed with progressive ideals of how inmates should be treated.

The Lorton Workhouse was an agricultural work camp. Inmates farmed the acreage surrounding the prison buildings right up until the latter part of the 20th century. The facility never quite achieved self-sufficiency but featured operations such as a pasture, hog ranch, poultry farm, slaughterhouse, sawmill, blacksmith shop, dairy and storage.

One of the Lorton Prison’s most famous stories is of the suffragettes. After being arrested for their part in women’s rights demonstrations in Washington, 168 women were detained in the Workhouse from June to December 1917.

Sources for this story are “Belmont Plantation on the Occoquan, Fairfax County, Virginia” by Robert Morgan Moxham (1975), “Fairfax County, Virginia: A History” by Nan Netherton, Daniel Sweig, Janice Artemel, Patricia Hickin and Patrick Reed (1978), History Commissioner Sallie Lyons, Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites, Center for History and New Media, the Library of Congress photo archives and “Historic Context of the Prison” by the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning ( With special thanks to Nancy Makowski, Suzanne Levy, Anne Toohey and Michele Bernocco of the Virginia Room and Tom Howard.