Street names reflect Alexandrias history


In Alexandria, the evolution of the street names followed a historical path starting with the English back in 1749.

As this political hotspot took on a pivotal role in the nations development, the streets were named accordingly.

The core of Old Town started with 10 streets spanning 60 acres, named after royalty as people at that time were more aligned with England and the Parliament.

At that time, the center street was Fairfax and Royal Streets, followed by King, Queen, Prince, Duke, Princess and Water Streets. Oronoco Street was part of this phase as well, named after a certain type of sweet tobacco that filled a tobacco warehouse at the foot of Oronoko Creek in that part of town. It was also called Tobacco Street. In the royal hierarchy, Oronoco Street should have been Duchess Street, if it werent for the creek, the original Indian settlers, and tobacco trade.

As the American Revolution gained steam, Pitt and Wolfe Streets were added in honor of William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham in England who was sympathetic to the colonists, and James Wolfe, a hero of the Battle of Quebec in the French and Indian wars in Canada. In December of 1774, St. Asaph Street was added, named after the Jonathan Shipley, the Bishop of St. Asaph, who was also friendly to the colonists.

After the war, Wilkes, Gibbon, Franklin and Washington Streets were added. John Wilkes was an Englishman sympathetic to the cause; Gibbon was a historian; Franklin was after noted statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin; and Washington was after Gorge Washington.

The street names are very powerful indicator of the times, said Pam Cressey, the citys archeologist. Oronoco is the only folk name, she added.

The next phase for the streets of Alexandria was the Civil War. Alexandria was a Confederate city that was occupied by the Union for years until the wars end in 1865. It wasnt until after the war that Water Street, once closer to the shore line, was renamed Lee Street after Robert E. Lee. Union Street on the other hand, got its name years before due to the union of the colonies.

In 1862, during the Civil War, General Slough was the military governer of the occupied city and he put forth Order #4 forbidding the sale of liquor within limits of his command. He issued fines to people violating this rule, and ended up collecting $60,000 which was used to repave King Street.

On Queen Street, there was once a row of shabby houses that sheltered a bunch of Irish immigrants whose drunken dances and wakes kept a turmoil in the neighborhood, according to a story in The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia by Mary G. Powell (1928).

In 1852, property owner Robert Brockett tore down the houses and went upscale to break up the Irish partiers. Brocketts Alley still runs between Washington and St. Asaph Streets.

Roads out of town
Several streets outside of Old Town had histories as well. Braddock Road was named after General Braddock who took a troop of British redcoats, including George Washington, to Fort Duquesne to battle the French and Indians. Although  Braddock was killed in the battle, Washington survived and got a reputation among the Indians that he was a special person. Through the years, Braddock Road was also called Mountain Road, Alexandria Road, Centreville Road, The Old Road and Walter Griffiths Rolling Road.

Little River Turnpike went all the way to Goose Creek out near Centreville, when Goose Creek was known as the Little River. It was once called Main Post Road. In 1785, the road was a toll road to pay for improvements rather than charge those that lived along the road. Then in 1802, the Little River Turnpike Company was formed, collecting $30,000 in 1818 to pave 34 miles of the road.

On the north end of town, Janneys Lane is named after a Quaker merchant named Phineas Janney, a businessman and home owner in that part of town.

Other roads get names attached through association. The 100 block of Prince Street, for example, is known as Captains Row after Captain John Harper of Revolutionary War fame. Harper had 29 children, and he built houses and lots for each one in this area of the city. The Captains Row name stuck, and is still being used today by residents on the block, which is one of a few stretches of city streets that are still cobblestone.

There are planters on either end of the block labeled Captains Row. It has a certain cache to it, said Mary ODonnell, a resident of one of the rows houses that dates back to the 1700s that was once a brothel, ODonnell said. Rumor has it that there is a revolutionary ghost haunting 210 Prince Street affiliated with the sea captains.

Harriet Melmer is also a resident on the Captains Row in a house that dates back to 1782 when it was used as an auctioneers market, and then a bakery. Everybody that lives here is very conscious of the historic value, Melmer said. She can still see beams in her attic that were taken from the ships that were dismantled at the wharf that was once at the foot of Prince Street.

The cobblestones are an attraction, which is good and bad. Tourists sometime like the novelty of driving up and down the bumpy road, and this attracts the media as well. In past years, a bank commercial was filmed on the road featuring a Ben Franklin figure in a colonial outfit.

Historic alleys
Connecting all these streets around Old Town is a series of alleys with a history of their own. When the original street map was created, the alleys were included as pedestrian thoroughfares, loading zones and social gathering places for the slaves and workers. Some of the more noted alleys include Printers Alley, Wales Alley, Ramsay Alley, and Sharps Alley.

Printers Alley, which is also called Swifts Alley, was home to the newspaper offices of the Virginia Journal and the Alexandria Advertiser, which was published first in 1784. In 1797 the name was changed to The Alexandria Times & Advertiser, published by Sir Thomas Westcott, and is the predecessor to todays Alexandria Times which you hold in your hands.

Ramsay Alley, which goes from Fairfax Street to Union Street, was named after William Ramsay, one of the founders of Alexandria and the citys first mayor. Sharps Alley was also called Shinbone Alley because of the coin shards that were found in the alley, as the story goes. The alley ran to Market Square and legend has it, the revolutionary coins were sometimes cut into pieces with sharp edges that cut through pockets and ended up in the alley. That alley was known as Love Alley at one time too, after a love affair that was carried on in the alley.
One alley that no longer exists was called Spite Alley after a property owner at 520 Queen Street was tired of people cutting through the alley so they built a house in the middle of the alley to spite the cut-throughs. The house still stands.