old town

The Phantoms of North Fairfax Street

Black and white photograph of the 100 Block of North Fairfax Street, taken 1861-1865. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.)

When the Alexandria Gazette published a report about a "Fatal and Melancholy Affair" on June 29, 1868, editors probably didn't anticipate that the article would become the basis for one of Alexandria, Virginia's most infamous ghost stories. Maybe you've heard of the Bride of Old Town, or perhaps the name "Laura Schafer" rings a bell, but what's the full story? What really happened to the woman who supposedly burned to death on the night before her wedding day? What about her groom? And what if she never left Old Town?

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)

The Potomac's Houseboats of Ill Fame

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.

Historic American Buildings Survey photo of Appich Buildings, 408-414 King Street which were among the buildings demolished during Alexandria's Urban Renewal project. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Making of Old Town

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.