Drive down the winding Ox Road through the woods of Occoquan Regional Park, and as the road levels off and opens up onto a small bridge over the Occoquan River, you’ll find yourself looking down on a sleepy former mill town, homes and storefronts popping up sporadically among the trees on the hillside before bunching up at the river, gathering into a main street. When you step out of your car and walk along the low and close buildings, a mix of Virginia humidity and stirring breezes from the river can make the air seem loaded. Enter one of the restaurants in the evening, and you’ll probably find the lights have a habit of flickering.
If spiritualists are to be believed, the eerie vibes are more than a matter of a river town’s atmospherics. Phantoms purportedly wander not just the buildings of Occoquan, but also the streets, intermingling sociably across the decades in their own parallel version of the idyllic historic town.
The ghost tour is a 30-year-old institution in Occoquan. In its current iteration, it’s about a two-hour stroll of Occoquan’s small main street, focused on restaurants with reported sightings, with the option to partake in some signature cocktails along the way. It explores spooky (but almost never scary) tales that range across the decades, both back toward the mill town’s heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries (it was founded in 1734) and forward as far as 2019.
The tour starts in Local Colour, the art gallery of the tour guide herself, Rachael Bright. Bright, an Alexandria resident, purchased the tour (which consists of 30 years of accumulated stories, a pair of dowsing rods for communicating with the dead, and the Facebook page) in the summer of 2019, but she’d already had an experience the first day she moved her business into the town: The ghost of a 7-year-old boy stole her red painter’s smock, to use it as a Superman cape. She knows he did it, she says, because he told her. The specters she interacts with are happy to talk, chatting almost on demand when Bright pulls out her dowsing rods. If the rods cross each other as they sway in Bright’s hands, that’s a “yes” answer to your question; if they stay parallel, that’s a “no.”
Just a few doors down, the spirit of a former mill heiress resides in the second floor of The Spot on Mill Street, the restaurant that occupies what was her home. Bright lays out to the tour the competing accounts of the spirit’s life: Before Bright came along, the local belief was that a spirit named Molly had killed herself due to the pain of being in love with a married man. Bright maintains that the ghost gives her name as Hortense and that she fled to the support of family wealth in Occoquan after the burning of Atlanta; lost two brothers who fought and died for the Confederacy; and, overcome with grief, took her own life.
Despite the tragedy, Hortense is not an unhappy spirit. She’s active, but not threatening: She’s lifted the hair on a tour member’s head, even appeared as a figure of whirling black smoke to Bright herself.
That’s the kind of experience that believers dream of, but she’s not even Bright’s most active spirit. That status belongs to Harry, once the last remaining Tauxenent Native American in Occoquan, his tribe pushed out by white settlers. A popular fiddler in the town, Harry purportedly had a relationship with the sheriff’s mistress. The sheriff, in retaliation, murdered him. And even though the lawman was never prosecuted for his crime, Harry, too, is friendly—perhaps too friendly. Bright says guests have been pinched and patted; he’s even been known to say “boo” to restaurant staffers. One server reports having an extended conversation with him, the spirit winking the lights in response to her questions.
The tour concludes at Madigan’s Waterfront, a renovated boathouse-turned-restaurant. The second floor plays host to two little girls, one dead of the Spanish flu, one of scarlet fever. While the pairing might immediately bring to mind the spooky sisters from The Shining, these two aren’t trying to scare you. Still, guests have reported accidentally bumping into the kids, hearing knocks, and even noticing a chair turned toward the window when it hadn’t been before, as if someone were trying to look outside.
Bright cites many reasons for the presence of so many lively spirits in Occoquan: the town’s placement on sacred Native American land, a high concentration of quartz in the earth, an underground stream flowing under the earth into the river, even the town lying on a Wiccan “ley line” of spiritual energy. But take that first look at Occoquan from the bridge in the evening light, and you may not need a reason to believe.