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A Sense of Place

Boasting a rich history, Clifton, Fairfax Station and Lorton offer a multitude of activities for its residents.

Clifton may have a lot of history and legendary places, but a resident historian wants to make one thing very clear.

“The Bunny Man Bridge is not a true story,” said Lynne Garvey-Hodge, a member of the Fairfax County History Commission and long-time Clifton resident.

The story may be notorious, but it’s not true, Garvey-Hodge said. According to folklore, an escaped prisoner from the former D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton murdered any number of unfortunate passersby and hanged the bodies from trees near a claustrophobic tunnel under the old O&A Railroad bridge on Old Colchester Road in Clifton.

But there are a multitude of explanations as to what happened, how many people were killed there and how the “Bunny Man” got his name. The local history website HistoricClifton.org claims that an escaped convict, Marcus Wallster, was found dead near the bridge in 1904, and in his hand he held a crude tool fashioned from a rock. Near Wallster’s body were dead rabbits. His murder was attributed to another escaped prisoner, Douglas Grifon. Three teenagers were allegedly found dead near the bridge in April 1905, “their throats slashed with what seemed to be the same type of tool that was found next to the other escapee,” the website continued. Their bodies were hung from one end of the bridge with their legs hanging at eye-level for the passengers on the then-busy train line. In total, up to 19 people are rumored to have died there.

There are numerous things wrong with these stories, Garvey-Hodge said, not the least of which is that the Lorton prison didn’t open until 1910.

She can understand the whispers and mystery, however. The bridge is dark; the road leading up to it is very narrow; there are no street lights in the vicinity and it’s just plain creepy near the old bridge, through which only one car at a time can pass.

Other stories attribute the death to someone who escaped an asylum on the far side of the bridge, but that didn’t exist either, she said. There was a poorhouse in the area, where people who didn’t have the means to live in their own homes could work and earn their room and board, but no place for the mentally ill.

The story of the Bunny Man Bridge was also pointed to as the inspiration for the character of Frank in the 2001 movie “Donnie Darko,” in which a suburban Virginia teenager is menaced by a man wearing a fuzzy pajama suit and a scary rabbit mask, at least according to some conspiracy theorists, like the ones who reviewed the bridge on the websites Yelp.com and wikipedia.org.

Clifton does have authentic history to be proud of, without the shaky rumors of the bridge from hell.

Look at the Primitive Baptist Church, for example. The one-room building was built 1871 by freed slaves who were deeded the land by their former owner, William Beckwith. It has been restored and preserved as the first African-American church in the county, and services are still offered there on the fourth Sunday of each month.

Additionally, in the small parking lot behind the Heart in Hand Restaurant on Main Street is a red caboose, an homage to the town’s start as a train depot on the O&A Railroad. Originally called Devereux Station, named after John Henry Devereux, the railway’s superintendent. The town was a vital link during the Civil War battle of Sanger Station, which, oddly enough, occurred in close proximity to the Bunny Man Bridge.

The town revels in its quaint, historic nature. Many of the homes on Main Street are called by their original names, like the Pink House, the Beckwith House and the Payne House. The signs in front of the homes tell their history, along with stories about the role each house—and their owners — have played in the story of town life. With only 225 houses in the incorporated town, walking from the Trummer’s On Main restaurant, past the Clifton Store and down to Primitive Baptist Church is a snapshot of life in Fairfax County from days long passed.

Each year, several events bring residents together to share in their small community. A large car show and parade fills Main Street on Labor Day, followed by the Haunted Trail festival near Halloween. Recent contributions include a series of holiday activities leading up to Christmas that feature visits from Santa, caroling and gift wrapping services, all of which is kicked-off by the annual Clifton Candlelight Tour of beautifully decorated homes.

MOVING EAST toward Ox Road, the historic nature of Fairfax County can be appreciated at two locations worth visiting: St. Mary of Sorrow’s Church and the Fairfax Station Train Museum.

St. Mary’s, on Ox Road at Fairfax Station Road, is a small white church with green trim that served as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War. A plaque on the front of the church, near its two small wooden doors, commemorates the work of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who looked after soldiers there that had been injured during the Battle of Second Manassas. The soldiers were transported to the nearby train station and laid out on the church’s grounds, where Barton and a handful of assistants tended to them.

Barton was a Massachusetts native who got word of troops being attacked by Southern sympathizers in April 1861. She rushed off from her Washington office, one of the first women to work as a clerk the federal government, to gather supplies to care for them. She returned to her work shortly thereafter, but once again felt compelled to serve the soldier following the Battle of Second Manassas and Ox Hill in late August 1862. Despite horrible weather and threats of being forced away from her Union patients, Barton and her four assistants remained at St. Mary’s until Sept. 2, when the last patient was loaded onto a train and off the makeshift hospital she had created and Confederate soldiers captured and set fire to the train station, according to the book “Fairfax Station—All Aboard!” by Nan Netherton and Whitney Von Lake Wyckoff.

The station was not lost forever, though. It was later rebuilt, then deconstructed and moved to its current location, just uphill from its original site on Fairfax Station Road.

Since 1975, the Fairfax Station Train Museum has served as a one-stop-shop for train enthusiasts and history buffs, offering both monthly events and weekly open houses for those who want to learn more about the O&A Railroad and Fairfax Station’s role in the Civil War. Each December, the museum hosts a toy train festival, in which train collectors of all ages gather together to trade their cars, have old pieces repaired and share their stories about cars, cabooses and engines. Train clubs from across the region come together to show off their models, which are on display during the weekend. Even Santa makes an appearance, coming in by, what else, a train.

FURTHER DOWN Ox Road, before the Occoquan River, sits a former prison that’s been given a new lease on life as an arts center.

The Workhouse Arts Center used to be just that — a workhouse for Reform-era prisoners at the start of the 20th century. Now the dormitories have been converted to studio and gallery space, where artists like Mary Gallagher-Stout, who takes newspapers and turns them into canvasses.

Gallagher-Stout, who works on her pastel creations in Studio 411 in Building 4 of the Workhouse campus, said she was inspired to find a creative space after taking a nine-week-long program at Virginia Commonwealth University a few summers ago.

Her medium is a little unusual. She goes into Washington, D.C., takes photos for a few hours of things she finds interesting, ranging from buildings and monuments to animals and people, then returns to her studio space and recreates those photos on newspapers using pastels.

“I’m a visual reporter,” she said. “I’m repeating a piece of news, an actual event, on newspaper.”

Sometimes the image and the paper are reflexive. One piece, a recreation of the place where former president Ronald Reagan was shot back in 1980, was created on a World Affairs page from the Washington Post.

Others tell a story of a specific moment in time. One of her favorite pieces is of a squirrel with a big apple in its mouth.

The apple had fallen onto the ground near the U.S. Capitol, explains her daughter, Erin, sitting behind the desk. Only one bite had been taken out of the otherwise perfect apple, and the squirrel, sensing a feast for the taking, ran over and picked it up in its tiny mouth, then ran away.

The title of the piece is “Nuts are for the birds, I think I’ll have an apple,” Gallagher-Stout said, giggling.

Looking like an early Blondie-era Debbie Harry with short blond hair and boundless energy, she gestures wildly when talking about the sense of community and synergy that has followed her decision to occupy a studio at the Workhouse.

“There’s great energy here,” she said. The artists talk to each other, share ideas and help tweak compositions, even discussing where they find various shades of colors.

“I fell in love with this space,” she said. “It’s not easy being an artist, putting yourself out there personally, professionally and financially. Here, we help each other out.”

AND IF ALL that art leads to the urge for quiet contemplation in nature, turn down Lorton Road to Route 1 and follow the signs to either Pohick Bay Regional Park or Mason Neck State Park.

Both parks have hiking trails, boat launches and picnic facilities. Both look out on the beautiful Potomac River, sharing a bit of shoreline on the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Both parks are known for attracting wildlife, especially water birds like herons, osprey and bald eagles.

Mason Neck offers an eagle festival each April, organized by the family of Elizabeth Hartwell, a longtime Mason Neck resident who loved the birds and was an advocate for their protection when they were on the endangered species list. Her dedication to the graceful creatures has been rewarded and honored by the renaming of the park’s visitor’s center in her honor.

Each January, when the birds are in abundance in the area thanks to their winter migratory patterns, the park offers several bird watching trips, led by naturalists, discussing the wildlife in the park and pointing out where eagles like to dive into the icy water in the hopes of catching their dinner.

Naturalists at Pohick Bay offer guided kayak tours of the water during the summer months, but kayaks and canoes are also available for rent on weekends from March through early November. Eagles can be just as plentiful at that park, managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, as are squirrels, butterflies and deer.

For the more adventurous type, head back toward Clifton and stop into the Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, where ropes courses, ziplines and miles of more challenging hiking paths.

The Hemlock facility is now under the ownership of Adventure Links, which took over from George Mason University in 2009, said Jennifer Montgomery, logistics and office coordinator at Hemlock.

The ropes course of 60-70 activities has been tweaked and constructed over the past 25 years, Montgomery said, and hosts numerous team development outings each year. The ropes course and the zipline present opportunities for professional groups and scout troops to learn to trust each other and work together in new ways that can bring them closer, she said.

“We have a variety of school groups, non-profit organizations and corporations frequent the programs at Adventure Links at Hemlock,” Montgomery said. “They experience a variety of team development and leadership immersion exercises to grow as individuals and teams. Adventure Links offer a great variety of high adventure programming in rock climbing, caving, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking and primitive living skills.”

Programs are offered year-round, she added, but things tend to slow down in the colder winter months.

Groups of eight or more people are welcome to contact Adventure Links to set up a trip on the ropes course, Montgomery said, but individuals are welcome to hike the public trail or take horses on the riding trail without reservations or a large group.