Alexandria

The Potomac's Houseboats of Ill Fame

The Potomac River waters near Alexandria, shown here during the Civil War, were filled with arks that offered a variety of illicit entertainments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Image Source: Library of Congress)

If you thought pirates were the only ones able to get into trouble on the water, you’d be wrong. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Potomac River was full of boats – or arks as they were called – that provided all sorts of illicit temptations for parties that were so inclined. While efforts were made to enforce the laws of Virginia, Maryland and the District, the arks’ ability to float downriver to avoid authorities made them a persistent problem.

Judith McGuire (Source: FindAGrave.com)

Civil War Alexandria Through the Eyes of Judith Brockenbrough McGuire

When the Civil War began looming on the horizon, Judith Brockenbrough McGuire (1813-1897) was the wealthy wife of a prominent citizen in Alexandria, and like many on both sides of the conflict, she believed in a speedy and perhaps even non-violent end to the conflict. In the days leading up to the war, McGuire recorded in her diary the increasingly depressing landscape of Alexandria. Give it a read and take a step back in time!

George Alfred Townsend in 1899. (Source: Wikipedia)

"Some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes."

One of the most remembered war correspondents was also the youngest reporter in the Civil War, George Alfred Townsend. Born in 1841, Townsend’s reports on the Battle of Five Forks and the Lincoln assassination gained him wide recognition, but before he had the chance to write those, Townsend visited the occupied city of Alexandria. Among his observations: "It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; now how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie [sic]."

"More Tons, Less Huns": The Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation in Alexandria, VA: 1917-1922

Back of peoples' heads in the foreground with a large boat in the background.

World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production, and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.

A cartoon comments on the closing of St. Asaph (Source: Washington Times, January 13, 1905)

A Fight to End Horse Racing and Gambling in Alexandria

The St. Asaph racetrack in Alexandria was a hotbed of gambling at the turn of the century, and local prosecutor Crandal Mackey made it his personal mission to shut the track down. But that was easier said than done as as the track's owners concocted elaborate schemes to outwit authorities and circumvent Virginia's anti-gambling statutes.

Police removing sit-in participants from the Alexandria Library (Source: Wiikpedia)

Alexandria Library Sit-In, 1939

In 1939 -- decades before Virginia schools were integrated, and sit-ins emerged as a primary strategy for protesting segregated businesses and public facilities in the South -- Alexandria, Virginia lawyer Samuel Tucker organized a successful sit-in to demonstrate against the Alexandria Library's "whites only" policy. It is believed to be the first sit-in for desegregation in American history.

Postcard depicting Tomb of Female Stanger (Credi: By Boston Public Library - Tomb of a female stranger, Alexandria, Virginia, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41983533)

The Female Stranger of Alexandria

Two hundred years ago, an unknown woman breathed her last in room 8 of Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. Her husband prepared her body for death in secret and sealed her coffin personally. After seeing that she was placed in a local graveyard, he vanished. It’s the sort of story that would condemn a person to be lost to history, but the circumstances surrounding this woman’s death and interment sparked centuries of questions and outlandish theories. Even now, no one alive knows her name. She remains the Female Stranger of Alexandria.

The Alexandria Retrocession of 1846

1835 map of the District of Columbia.

We have the states of Maryland and Virginia to thank for the land that created the nation’s capital and the greater District of Columbia. It was through their cession of territory via the Residence Act of 1790 that Congress was able to establish a permanent home for a federal government that was up to that point rather itinerant. The 100-square-mile block called for by Congress that would constitute the District was made up of 69 square miles of territory from Maryland and another 31 square miles from Virginia. The District, which was organized by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, organized the territory and officially placed it under the control of Congress. The bill was enacted on February 27, 1801, and almost from the moment of its passage, Virginia was looking for a way to get its territory back.

The Making of Old Town

map of original oldtown

The picturesque Old Town we know today didn’t just happen naturally. It was planned in response to America’s burgeoning historic preservation movement, mid-century urban renewal efforts and a lot of involvement from local citizens.

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