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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.

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

"More Tons, Less Huns": World War I Shipbuilding in Alexandria

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 the track's owners concocted elaborate schemes to outwit authorities and circumvent Virginia's anti-gambling statutes.

1835 map showing Alexandria as part of original District of Columbia. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Alexandria Retrocession of 1846

We have the states of Maryland and Virginia to thank for the land that created Washington, D.C. It was through their cession of territory — 69 square miles from Maryland and 31 square miles from Virginia — that Congress was able to establish a permanent home for a federal government on the banks of the Potomac River in 1801. However, almost from day one, Virginia was looking for a way to get its land back. Four decades later, it finally did.

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.

Death of Col. Ellsworth After hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861; Creator: Currier & Ives. (Source: Library of Congress)

First Union Officer Killed in Civil War Was a Friend of Lincoln

Possibly the toughest part of being a President is having to send U.S. forces into combat, knowing that some of them will not return alive.  After the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had to face that terrible reality very quickly. On the morning of May 24, 1861, a personal friend of the President, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, became the first Union officer to be killed in the conflict in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.

 

U.S. Naval Torpedo Station in Alexandria, Virginia circa 1922

The Torpedo Factory Art Center: Alexandria's World War II Landmark

Sitting on the waterfront of the Potomac River, the 85,000 square foot Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria is a landmark of Northern Virginia history. Today, the building houses artist studios, galleries, art workshops, and even an archeology museum. Yet during the tumultuous years of World War II, workers produced something very different in the space — the Mark 14 submarine torpedo used by U.S. Navy personnel in the Pacific theater of the war. Over 70 years after its decommissioning as a munitions depot, the history of the Torpedo Factory is a fascinating tale of politics, faulty weapon engineering, and local spirit.

President Gerald Ford at a White House press conference, Washington, D.C., 1974. (Source: U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

When the White House Was in Alexandria

Everyone knows that the President lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. But some locals may remember a time when that wasn’t the case. For ten days in August of 1974, the leader of the free world lived in a relatively modest red brick and white clapboard house in Alexandria, Virginia and commuted to the Oval Office each morning. Life changed pretty quickly for Gerald Ford that summer.