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Stafford's Government Island elevates the ordinary for its visitors

February 27, 2011 12:15 am


Raised walkways take visitors to Stafford's Government Island Park through some biologically rich wetlands.

STAFFORD County's Government Island offers something out of the ordinary in the way of a local park.

The theme of this recently opened facility is history, but it could just as well be nature or picture-taking.

You will find no ball fields or basketball courts here, nor the heavily wooded piece of land that developers shunned.

What you will find is a mile-and-a-half of mostly elevated walkways crossing a marshy bottomland hardwood forest leading to a rare historic quarry and spectacular views of shallow tidal marshes.

The habitat in this 17-acre pocket park is varied and sure to be a magnet for birds and other wetland wildlife. And on the sunny day I visited last week it also proved a magnet for visitors of my own species, who have been quick to discover its virtues.

I went off-trail to scout the marsh edges in search of birds, finding some top-notch wildlife habitat that should draw a wide variety of migrants and later resident species in another month or more. By October or November these will be replaced by numbers of wintering waterfowl, drawn to the tidal flats along Aquia Creek.

But the big attraction at Government Island is its history as the source of fine-grained sandstone used to build both the White House and national Capitol. The story--well told in a series of illustrated panels along the park's trail--relates the quarrying of the rock and its use in the construction of two of the most iconic buildings in America.

Government Island, which isn't an island at all but a narrow peninsula at the confluence of two creeks, was once owned by the federal government.

At one stop along the historic walk there is clear evidence of the former quarrying, including many obvious marks from cutting tools.

At the time this quarry was being worked in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, all cutting and sawing was done manually, an incredibly laborious task involving many workers.

The remaining visible evidence of these huge stone works two centuries later scarcely hints at the scope of what had to have been a very large industrial operation.

It is hard to imagine, today, what that operation must have been like in 1800.

To reach the park, drive north from Stafford Courthouse on U.S. 1 to the stoplight at Coal Landing Road. Turn right there and drive until you see a large power transformer station on the left. Park at the lot beside the station.

Follow the paved pathway that runs along the right side of the creek, then loop around the higher land of the "island" and back onto the elevated walkway.

Correction: Several readers quickly caught my mistake last week in reversing the names of Swift Run and Thornton gaps in Shenandoah National Park. It is of course Thornton Gap where U.S. 211 crosses Skyline Drive, while Swift Run Gap is the point where U.S. 33 crosses the same road.

Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former reporter with The Free Lance-Star, is a freelance writer. E-mail him at

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