When you think of northern Virginia, the last thing you may think about is a charming village surrounded by sprawling estates and horse farms. Yet, that is exactly what you will find in the small town of Clifton, VA located within only a few minutes of all the traffic and congestion of the metropolitan DC area. In 1874 Clifton was the largest town in Fairfax County. However, over the years the townspeople have deliberately chosen to curtail growth in favor of retaining a small town heritage. This allowed Clifton to remain a tiny oasis in the midst of the urban sprawl that has overtaken many of its much larger neighboring cities.
The town is unpretentious. Unlike many revitalized “old towns” there is nothing particularly touristy about it. A bright red caboose marks the spot where the town began as a humble train depot for the Union during the Civil War in what was initially named Devereux Station. A walking tour flyer is posted on the window of the caboose. This is the closest thing to a visitor center the town has to offer. That is, unless you consider the unassuming dark green store across the street with the antiquated Texaco sign out front. This is really the hub of the community – the Clifton General Store. It is here you can not only grab a bite to eat but you can also catch up on all the comings and goings in the community on CNN (the Clifton Nosey Neighbor) posted on a dry board above the cash register.
Clifton is the perfect model for “Small Town USA”. In fact the entire region became a national historic district in 1984. Visitors feel compelled to stroll along the streets and read the brightly painted signs in front of many of the homes, each telling a unique story of the structure, its age (most over 100 years old) and architecture type. Perhaps more importantly, each sign tells the unique story of the people who once inhabited the buildings giving visitor’s insight into the characters that forged the town and helped make it is what you see today, providing yet another reminder that a community is more than the buildings that comprise it. It is about the people who built it, lived it and lovingly preserved it.
The town’s local charm has attracted many famous visitors over the years starting with George Washington who reportedly hunted the land prior to Clifton being formed. Over the years other political figures such as Ulysses S. Grant and later Nancy Reagan have visited Clifton. The quaint town has even had connections with the glamour of Hollywood as actress Helen Hayes was known to have spent several summers there and screenwriter Jeff Arch wrote “Sleepless in Seattle” while living there.
In addition to political figures and other famous personalities, Clifton has also been reported to be the home of another infamous celebrity. I am referring to the mysterious Bunny Man. According to legend, the Bunny Man was an escaped mental patient who took up temporary residence under “Bunny Man Bridge” off of Colchester Rd in Clifton. While hiding from search parties, the Bunny Man attacked people with an axe and hung their bodies from the bridge. His name was derived from the fact that the only traces of the Bunny Man that search parties were able to find were carcasses of the rabbits the Bunny Man had for dinner.
Today, you can drive under this one lane bridge and decide for yourself if there is any truth to the story. Regardless, one can’t help but feel a little uneasy as you drive down the lonely road. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision a psycho taking up residence in the dreary narrow passage under the train tracks. Bunny Man sightings are not uncommon during Halloween and reportings of ghostly images of his victims hanging from the bridge also persist. However, the only time that you may actually hear of the Bunny Man in town, (other than being able to buy a Bunny Man T-shirt at the Clifton General Store) is during the town’s Haunted Trail celebration which occurs once a year around Halloween. It is then that visitors are dared to wander through 8 acres filled with spooky monsters, while trying to avoid the notorious Bunny Man.
The town offers several other celebrations throughout the year such as Clifton Day in the fall and a Fourth of July parade that has been compared to a scene in a Norman Rockwell painting. People seem to be drawn to Clifton whether they are famous, infamous or just ordinary folk. Whether one would like to write an award winning screenplay or skin a few rabbits while hiding from the law, Clifton is the kind of place where anything can happen though most visitors are content to do a little shopping, a little dining and perhaps partake in a little gossip from the general store. Regardless of the reason or the season, the residents of Clifton will continue to ensure that the heart of the town remains much as always has ensuring that “Small Town USA” will remain alive and well in northern Virginia.
Directions to Bunny Man Bridge: Exit Clifton on Newman Road (6800) heading east. Turn right on Fairfax Station Road. Turn right on Colchester. Bunny Man Bridge is less than a half mile down on Colchester.