Occoquan Workhouse
by Debbie Robison

Due to a clamor for reform in the penal methods, and overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at the District of Columbia jail, Congress passed legislation in 1909 authorizing the purchase of land for a workhouse and reformatory of modern and sanitary construction.[1]


One objective of the new workhouse and reformatory was to create a model penal system for replication across the United States. The District jail commission studied and discussed various penal institution models to determine the ideal system for local implementation. Massachusetts prisons at Bridgewater, Sherborn, and Concord were used as models for the District, after being visited and praised by District Engineer Commissioner Maj. V. Judson.[2]


Progressive-era reform advocated training prisoners for a trade to enable them to obtain employment following their release, making prisons self-supporting through use of prison labor, and providing a wholesome and uplifting environment. District jail Warden McKee was an advocate of reform, stating:


Instead of sending young men and women to the jail for workhouse, it would be more humane for the future citizenship of the country to send them to an institution conducted along the lines of your National Training School for Boys, where they could be taught trades of usefulness…Instead of building jails and workhouses, establish a big farm, where criminals can be given work and made to support themselves. Give me the prisoners that come annually to the jail and workhouse on a 500-acre farm, and I’ll make them self-supporting and turn over to the government annually a large profit, instead of having to pay out $200,000 or more for their maintenance. This would be more humane, and certainly more economical…[3]


Implementation of the progressive ideals included encouraging the prisoners to better behavior by treating them with dignity. Superintendent W. H. Whittaker told 50 prisoners, whom he was transporting from the District jail to the site of the workhouse, that he would trust them to not attempt to break away, and was therefore not going to handcuff or shackle them. Whitaker was pleased with the success of this novel plan of handling prisoners. Whittaker also provided an incentive for good behavior: All convicts who have records for good behavior are to wear blue suits, and Mr. Whittaker believes that every man in the prison will work to win one…[4]


The new workhouse was constructed, in an effort to advance progressive reform, without bolts or bars.[5] The system was designed to appeal to the honor and manhood of prisoners. In 1914, Whittaker furthered progressive reform by removing Stockades and all semblance of restriction for keeping the prisoners…[6] In actuality, though, leg-irons and handcuffs were used to discipline prisoners who broke the rules.[7]


Whittaker repeatedly, but without apparent success, lobbied for indeterminate sentences and parole. His objective was to use sentence length to control good behavior, and believed that short sentences did not allow for sufficient time for reform.[8]


District commissioners solicited proposals for sites for a new jail and reformatory. To be considered, a site had to be not less than 1,000 acres, and was evaluated based on suitability for farming and price.[9]


European agricultural prisons had already been established in many countries, and were looked upon as learning opportunities. Jail commissioners may have stipulated the 1,000 acre requirement based on what past experience showed was the capacity of the land.


Whenever a new prison is to be constructed the authorities should buy ample land upon which to erect it - not less than an acre for every prisoner, counting the maximum population…[10]


After inspecting several proposed sites, Maj. V. Judson recommended the Dawson tract, on the Occoquan River opposite the village of Occoquan, for the workhouse. The site was preferred because it could be reached by boats, allowing supplies and prisoners to be transported by water. Additional advantages were described by the commissioner:


Maj. Judson explained that the site has a considerable amount of timber on it; has a stone quarry, and is high and healthy. From the quarry stone can be obtained for road making and like purposes. The soil of the tract, he said, has been tested by experts from the Department of Agriculture, who gave it a favorable report. The site furnishes a means of keeping the prisoners busy at cutting timber, quarrying stone, or tilling the soil. It is the intention of the commissioners to make the institution self-supporting, if possible.[11]


The public was under the impression that condemnation proceedings would be required to acquire the land; however, Auditor Tweedale did not believe that would be necessary since J. L. Dawson, the owner of the tract, felt he had clear titles.[12] As it turned out, condemnation proceedings were necessary to settle the price.[13] Likely, J. L. Dawson had pulled together an assemblage of tracts owned by himself and others, many of whom may be related. In addition to J. L. Dawson, the land owners were L. A. Denty, T. D. Violett, George W. and James T. Dawson, Katherine C. Holt, W. S. Lynn, George A. Selecman, Julia F. Selecman, and Redman and G. A. Selecman.[14]


Construction began on temporary prisoner quarters, consisting of tents surrounded by a stockade fence, in June 1910.


A stockade 490 feet long and 116 feet wide has been laid out close by the edge of the Occoquan River. The spruce poles, set close together and rising to a height of 12 feet, were felled by the prisoners, trimmed into shape, and set up. These 12-foot poles will be closely strung with barbed wire forming an inner guards’ corridor…On the inside, arrangements for the prisoners’ camp are rapidly taking shape. Already the cook shack is up, as well as a sleeping tent and dining tent. When plans are complete there will be seven large tents. Four of them will be 125 feet long. Of these four tents, three will be used as sleeping quarters, while the fourth will be a combination cooking and eating tent. Two 40-foot tents will be used, respectively, one for a bath and one for hospital purposes. An additional 30-foot tent will be for the accommodation of the guards…[15]


Design plans for the workhouse were underway in early 1910. Although Snowden Ashford was the Municipal Architect responsible for the workhouse, Leon E. Dessez was the special architect who was appointed by the commissioners to draft plans for the new workhouse.[16] By winter, temporary frame buildings were to be built at the site of the future permanent quarters. Prisoners were sent to a convict camp at the workhouse quarry to begin quarrying stone for the foundations of the temporary buildings and for road construction.[17]


Many landowners in the Occoquan area offered their land for sale for the workhouse and reformatory. Local residents were optimistic that the institutions would revitalize their community.


Nearly all of the land owners and tenants in the vicinity…are of the opinion that the location of the two institutions will greatly benefit their property. It is explained by rivermen that the proposition of running a boat to these places will mean the erection of several modern wharfs, which are greatly needed. Others say that it eventually will mean the extension of the electric car line, and make traffic to Washington convenient.[18]


Prior to the start of any construction at the workhouse, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to help protect the local community from having prisoners released in the area. The Board asked that the prisoners be transported out of Fairfax County before being let loose, instead of making the county the dumping ground for such undesirable citizens.[19]


Within six months of the arrival of the first prisoner, the community suffered in fear for their safety, allegedly caused by the progressive reform methods employed at the workhouse.


Quite the most serious feature of the system in vogue at the workhouse is the so-called honor system, putting the convicts on parole, or something similar, and sending them over the public roads, without any sort of a guard or keeper, in pairs and in large squads. It is not safe for a woman or child to travel unattended, and even the men go armed. The striped clothes of the convicts have been abandoned and the convicts clothed in a uniform and cap of cadet blue…[20]


Joseph M. Springman, Sr., proprietor of a general merchandise store at Lorton Station complained that business had fallen off due to the conditions.[21] Many of the families left the area and put their homes up for sale. At least three sales fell through due to the location of the workhouse.[22]


Prior to purchasing the land for the workhouse, the District of Columbia recognized that valuable clay deposits were on the site. As part of the reform model developed to utilize convict labor, the prisoners at the workhouse constructed a brick kiln to manufacture all of the bricks to be used in construction of the workhouse, reformatory, and accessory buildings.[23]


It was discovered, after prisoners began clearing the land, that the site selected on the Occoquan River for the kiln was the site of a Revolutionary-war burying ground. Whittaker proposed relocating the graves and burying them in a mound in the forest until protests were lodged.[24]


In March 1912, eight firms submitted bids to furnish the District with 60 tons of fire clay and 300,000 fire bricks to be used in construction of the brick kilns.[25] A new brick-making unit was constructed in 1925 that expanded the capabilities of the brick-making operations.


In addition to common bricks and rough texture face bricks, hollow tile can be made…Introduction of the manufacture of hollow tile at the brickyard will effect a savings of at least $400 on each dormitory building constructed. Operation of the new brick machinery with electric motor drive will effect a savings in coal…[26]


When plans for permanent buildings for the reformatory were prepared in 1919, it was estimated that 4,000,000 bricks from the workhouse would be utilized.[27] It was reported in 1927, that workhouse prisoners made 4,283,000 bricks during the year. A clay storage shed, with a capacity of 60 days’ supply of clay, enabled operations to continue uninterrupted during the winter. [28] Prisoner manufactured brick was sold to the District government for use in municipal construction; for example, sewers, engine houses, and school houses, including Central High School. Whittaker hoped to make an excellent paving brick.[29] In 1915, the brick was transported by water to the District brick storage house wharf at the foot of Tenth Street southwest.[30]



It was always the intent of the U. S. Congress to construct both a workhouse and reformatory. A  study by the jail commission, authorized by Congress to investigate the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions of the District jail and workhouse, recommended both institutions. Each was to house a different class of convict.


A reformatory for all who must be sentenced to confinement, and who, nevertheless, are hopeful cases.


A workhouse for those who must be confined and who are not proper subjects for reformatory treatment, and yet whose offenses are not such as to require that they be sent to a penitentiary.


Those not considered candidates for reform were sent federal penitentiaries. The class of convict slated for the reformatory and workhouse flip-flopped by the time the reformatory was being constructed. The workhouse received convicts with the shorter sentences. At the time the reformatory was being planned, it was desired to relocate long-term prisoners, then confined to federal prisons in other parts of the country, closer to the District in keeping with local ideals of reformation.


To obviate the necessity of sending long-term prisoners to penal institutions in various parts of the United States, all possible effort is being made to rush the construction of the temporary quarters for the care of that class of convicts at Occoquan, Va.[31]


Construction of the reformatory was delayed after the site selected was deemed too close to Mount Vernon, and a different tract of land needed to be sought.[32]  Condemnation hearings on a tract of land adjoining the workhouse begin in 1913, with most of the land owners agreeing upon a price.[33] In April 1914, the District acquired 1,388 acres, most in second growth pine and some original forest growth of hardwoods…much of the building material [for the workhouse], such as brick and stone, will be supplied from the workhouse by convict labor.[34]


District Building Commissioner Oliver P. Newman made a study of penal institutions in the south in preparation to the formulation of plans for the reformatory.


Commissioner Newman says that the committee having in charge the drafting of plans for the reformatory hopes to take a forward step that has not yet been taken in any other part of the United States, and to produce a penal institution without stockades, locks, bars, punishment, silence, or other restrictions usually associated with such institution. Considerable progress in this direction has already been made at the Occoquan workhouse…[35]


Superintendent Whittaker made suggestions on the design of the reformatory to Commissioner Newman that he felt would best meet the needs of the reformatory. He accompanied his written suggestions with pencil sketches of the conceptual buildings.[36]


Work began on temporary frame buildings in February 1915. Whittaker was placed in charge of construction, which was carried out primarily by workhouse labor. It was expected that the temporary buildings would be ready for occupancy in July 1916.


Plans for the construction of 29 permanent brick buildings were submitted in 1919 by Superintendent Charles Foster. The buildings were to be constructed by prisoners under the direction of C. B. Backus, constructing engineer.


Superintendent Foster plans to make the group of buildings the “world’s most advanced penal colony.” [37]


The workhouse reform plan employed the concept of using prison labor in agricultural pursuits to provide food, fresh air, and work for the prisoners. When the District appropriated funds to purchase the land for the workhouse, they also appropriated funds to purchase farm equipment.[38] By August 1911, 100 acres of farmland were under cultivation, with the hope of adding an additional 50 to 100 acres per year. To enrich the poor soil (once thought to be good), 400 to 500 loads of sweepings from the District streets and stables were brought to the workhouse farm in the six barges owned by the District, and used as fertilizer.[39]


Guards employed at the workhouse were selected based upon their abilities for specialized work. The tilling of the land was supervised by guards who were also experienced practical farmers. In addition to vegetables, the prisoners raised cows to provide milk, and cattle and hogs for butchering. Chickens were raised within enclosures on the farm. [40]


Farm products not consumed at the workhouse and reformatory were shipped to the District for use at other institutions, such as the jail and Washington Asylum Hospital, or to aid the poor.[41] By 1927, the workhouse was growing enough vegetables to warrant the construction at the reformatory of a cannery. This enabled the excess vegetables to be conserved for the winter months.[42]


Eugene Barrett, who was in charge of raising food for workhouse inmates, won prizes at the Prince William County fair for the tallest corn and the best alfalfa, which was also raised as winter fodder for the workhouse cattle. The house was likely named after Mr. Barrett.[43]


By 1931, the reformatory had a large orchard; however, from 1944 to 1949, the orchards lost money four out of the five years. Consequently, 1,200 unproductive apple trees were chopped down so the land could be devoted to more productive agricultural activities.[44] In 1956, a reformatory apple orchard was described as covering 100 acres.[45]


[1] “To Uplift Prisoners,” The Washington Post 1877, January 30, 1910, p. 5.

[2] “Penal Institution Plans,” Post, April 28, 1909, p. 11.

[3] “Jail Menace to City,” Post, February 16, 1909, p. 1.

[4] “Convicts Not Handcuffed,” Post, July 12, 1910, p. 4.

[5] “New District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars, August 13, 1911, p. 32.

[6] “Favors Parole Law,” Post, September 24, 1914, p. 14.

[7] “Six Fell Prison Guard,” Post, December 30, 1916, p. 1.

[8] “Parole to Prisoners,” Post, December 31, 1913, p. 14.

[9] “Bids for Penal Sites,” Post; “Jail Menace to City,” Post, February 16, 1909, p. 1; “To Uplift Prisoners,” Post, January 30, 1910, p.5.

[10] “Crime Their Topic,” Post, September 30, 1910, p. 1.

[11] “Prison Site Selected,” Post, June 10, 1909, p. 16.

[12]Prison Plans Rushed,” Post, August 24, 1909, p. 12.

[13] “Date for Land Hearing,” Post, March 3, 1910, p. 11.

[14] FXDB F7(162):212, March 17, 1910.

[15] “Building Own Prison,” Post, July 3, 1910, p. 6.

[16] “Soon to Begin Workhouse,” Post, April 3, 1910, p. 14.

[17] “The Convict Camp,” Post, June 17, 1910, p. 3.

[18] “Free Stone for City,” Post, March 13, 1910, p. 10.

[19] “Meeting of Board of Supervisors,” Fairfax Herald, April 8, 1910, p.3.

[20] “Prison Cause of Suit,” Post, January 13, 1911, p. 14.

[21] “Women in Fear of Convicts,” Post, April 22, 1911, p. 16.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “City May Make Brick,” Post, March 16, 1910, p. 12.

[24] “Save Heroes’ Graves,” Post, February 15, 1911, p. 16.

[25] “Bid on New Brick Kilns,” Post, March 26, 1912, p.10.

[26]Occoquan Brick Plant One of Best in East,” Post, August 30, 1925, p. 13.

[27] “Plans Big Model Jail at Lorton,” Post, October 9, 1919, p. 2.

[28]Reformatory Industry Reported on Increase,” Post, September 2, 1927, p. 8.

[29] “New District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars,” Post, August 13, 1911, p. 32.

[30] “Open Brick and Mule Bids,” Post, June 3, 1915, p. 14; “No Money to Pay for Brick,” June 23, 1915, p. 10.

[31] “Push Occoquan Prison,” Post, August 15, 1915, p. R7.

[32] “Menace to Mount Vernon,” Post, January 12, 1911, p. 6.

[33] “Start on Reformatory,” Post, September 19, 1913, p. 2.

[34] “Gets Big Occoquan Tract,” Post, April 12, 1914, p. 35.

[35] “Newman Back From South,” Post, December 23, 1914, p. 16.

[36] “Discuss Occoquan Addition,” Post, December 30, 1914, p. 14.

[37] “Plans Big Model Jail at Lorton,” Post, October 9, 1919, p. 2.

[38] “Deficiency Bill is In,” Post, January 11, 1910, p. 4

[39] “New District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars,” Post, August 13, 1911, p. 32.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Arraigns Penal System,” Post, December 10, 1915, p. 5; “Occoquan to Aid Poor,” Post, September 9, 1914, p. 14.

[42] “Prisoners Proving Adept at Making District Auto Tags,” Post, July 24, 1927, p. 6.

[43] “Corn Grows Tall at Lorton Workhouse,” Post, September 7, 1967, p. B1.

[44] “Penal Report Hits District in One Respect, Peak Says,” Post, July 28, 1931, p. 4; “Fruitless – 600 Weary Apple Trees to Get Ax,” Post, December 16, 1949, p. 18.

[45] “Girl Escapes Abductor Near Lorton, Post, February 27, 1956, p. 1.