One of the most famous toll bridges in the United States once spanned a stretch of the Occoquan River, an otherwise modest little river that winds through Virginia.
That toll bridge was integral in carrying people and resources north and south along the eastern corridor of the United States when there were only a handful of states “united.”
As a result of that structure and the mindful persistence of one of Virginia’s famous families, the town of Woodbridge got its name.
To tell the story we have to go way back to the 17th century, when America was still a vast wilderness occupied by many people with many different ways and customs. Europeans had been in what is Virginia for more than 150 years, but it was hard to get around, so Charles II of England ordered that a road be built. Charles was the one known as the “Merry Monarch” because he loved to throw a party. Yeehah!
Because this grand road was built under orders of Charles II it was dubbed “The King’s Highway.” It stretched from Boston, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. It was quite a horse ride in those days. The highway’s chief purpose was to deliver mail among the colonies.
Fast forward about 100 years to 1795 and we come to a man named Thomas Mason, the son of George Mason, a well-accomplished fellow who was successful, smart and influential enough that he was invited to serve at the Constitutional Convention as the founders of our nation bickered and negotiated their way to a new nation. Mason was a stubborn Virginian though — he is one of only three delegates who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Why did he refuse to set his quill down on that document? It didn’t go far enough to free the slaves or give citizens enough rights. Hoorah, for you George.
Anyway, Thomas Mason inherited most of his father’s land and by the last few years of the 18th century he realized that there was a lot of traffic that couldn’t traverse from The King’s Highway south into the heart of Virginia because the Occoquan River was in the way. How inconvenient.
Mason built a wooden toll bridge over the Occoquan River near what is now Woodbridge. Well, he didn’t build it, he actually hired a very skilled man named Theodore Burr to build it.
Burr was an interesting man in his own right: he was a self-taught inventor and structural engineer. He was also the cousin of Aaron Burr, one of the most fascinating characters in U.S. history, who was, for a while, the vice-president before he decided to kill one of the most respected founding fathers of our nation. That turned out to be a bad career move, but it made for a great story. But I digress.
Theodore Burr designed and built the first bridge across the Hudson River in New York, which lasted unimproved upon for more than a century. If you’ve ever been to the state of New York and driven over any body of water, you’ve probably driven across a bridge that Burr originally constructed. Mason contracted Burr to build a beautiful wooden bridge across the Occoquan River, which he did in 1795.
The bridge across the Occoquan River in what is today Woodbridge, Virginia, spanned more than 200 feet and utilized Burr’s ingenious method of support. It was so special and so well-respected that it became known as the “burr truss.” How many of you have a truss named after you?
Not everyone was ecstatic about this development. There was a ferry, owned by a local man whose name has been lost to history, and the sight of a bridge most definitely ruined his plans to become a thousandaire. So goes it.
Once Mason had his magnificent wood bridge in place, he set about charging a toll to anyone who wanted to use it to transport goods. As a result, he made scads of money. Unfortunately, less than five years later he died from a sudden illness. But the bridge remained, at least for a while. In 1807 a fire destroyed the original bridge. But it was rebuilt quickly, again using a Burr Truss.
Now we hop about forty years farther ahead to when Thomas’s son passed away and the bridge passed out of the Mason family. By that time, the Mason plantation that sat near the bridge (and employed no slaves) had earned the name “Woodbridge Plantation.” It was only fitting that when a community sprung up around it that the community was named “Woodbridge.”
By the way, even though all the men who played a part in how Woodbridge came to be Woodbridge are long gone (King Charles II, George and Thomas Mason, and the talented Theodore Burr) the road system that necessitated their actions is still quite visible today, of course. (It’s about five miles from the location of Mason’s bridge to Hendrick Honda). We call the road U.S. Route 1, which stretches more than 2,300 miles along the coast of the United States.
In some ways, it’s the Route 66 of the east: U.S. Route 1 is the very first north/south, continuous paved highway in America and it slinks its way right through Woodbridge. After it creeps across the Occoquan River, of course.