Virginia

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.

Mary and Elizabeth Edmonson

The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria: Legends in the Fight Against Slavery

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.

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.

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