You are in Washington D.C. You have committed a crime and have been arrested. You go to trail and is found guilty. The sentence is prison. Where did you go? You were sent to the Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Virginia where you would serve your time.
Why Lorton, Virginia?
The jail in the District of Columbia was overcrowded. With no available property, land was acquired in suburban Virginia. Beginning in 1910, prisoners were sent there to serve time. The prison was enlarged through the years and became a workhouse where prisoners were taught agriculture, brickmaking and canning. Among those imprisoned here were those from the National Women’s Party who, in the 1920’s, were arrested for protesting the women’s right to vote. Among them was Lucy Barns, one of the founders of the movement. The prison remained in operation until it was finally closed in 2001.
What happened to the facility?
55 acres along Virginia Route 123 was renovated. If you go to Lorton Reformatory today, you would not be going to jail. You will be going to visit artist studios to watch various artists paint their marvelous works. You can see clay makers working with clay for their pottery projects. You can even catch a show in the theater or visit the museum that tells the history of the prison. As you walk around, you will see a reformatory that truly has been reformed.
Now some of you are saying, “This is great. I like how they made this place into where artist can do and display their work and that they did not demolish the place. Now people can see history and works of art all in one place. There is one problem. There is no railroad here. Therefore, I will not be seeing any art here.”
Many of the structures of Lorton Reformatory have been preserved as art studios. Other areas of the reformatory are being renovated in townhouses, and the women’s reformatory is the headquarters of Fairfax Water, a utility company. What was not preserved… was the railroad.
What is a way to reform prisoners? Have them build a railroad. This is how the Lorton and Occoquan Railroad was built, and it is the only railroad in the history of the United States of America built by prisoners. Service on this narrow-gauge railroad began in 1911. As trains from the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (CSX today) arrived at the station in Lorton (where the current Amtrak terminal is located), cargo was transferred to the ‘L&O’. The cargo mainly consisted of prisoners, but other items to include bricks from a coke oven was also transported. The line ran mainly along what is now Lorton Road. (Interstate 95 was built over the rail line.) The line was four miles long with a few spurs from the line as it went past the reformatory and finished at a wharf on the north shore of the Occoquan River across from the town of Occoquan. The railroad was in operation until 1977. During the entire operation the line was maintained by prisoners with the engineer and the track manager being the only civilian workers. When the railroad was abandoned, much of the rolling stock and locomotives were sold. The tunnel that went under Interstate 95 was filled in during a renovation project. Other parts of the railroad line were paved over.
Are there any signs of the railroad today?
A section of the railroad line was converted into a rail trail. Two structures were spared. One of the structures was a brick arch bridge where the original Lorton Road cross over the tracks. The structure is just north of the current Lorton Road and can be seen from the highway and a short hike. The other structure is the coke oven that is now part of Occoquan Regional Park. A short section of the railroad entering the oven has been preserved. You can also see photos and artifacts of the Lorton and Occoquan Railroad in the museum that is on the premises. (The museum is open from 10:00am to 4:00pm Wednesday to Sunday, and admission is free.) If you are up for it, you can walk along the rail trail.
Along with artists on display, there are also classes that can be taken from learning art to clay to cooking to acting to photography. You can even catch a show in the theater. Plus, on the second Saturday evening of each month artists are on display with the ‘Second Saturday Art Walk’.
The Old Lorton Reformatory, also known as the Lorton Workhouse and the Workhouse Arts Center, is located at 9518 Workhouse Way in Lorton, Virginia just off Virginia Route 123. You can learn more about the events and classes and the hours at http://www.workhousearts.org.
So, if you are going to jail, Lorton Reformatory is a jail that you will want to go to. You can see art, dance, a show and some history… and a little railroad history.
*This is in memory of Bill Koch who preserved the information and artifacts of the Lorton and Occoquan Railroad for many generations to come.
**The photos of the clay maker and the pottery are being used by permission from the clay gallery at the Lorton Workhouse.
***The painting and the model are property of Patricia McMahon Rice and is being used by permission for this article. She has ownership of both the painting and the model. You can see her and her artwork at the Lorton Workhouse in Studio 608D.