Construction unearths 20th-century railroad tracks

Construction unearths 20th-century railroad tracks
The newly uncovered railroad tracks, which sweep through the upper left corner of the Windmill Hill shoreline project area, are visible starting on a 1941 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, recreated above (Overlay by Evan Berkowitz based on Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps provided by the Office of Historic Alexandria)

By Evan Berkowitz |

Archaeologists with the Office of Historic Alexandria had hoped that when city developers began work on Windmill Hill Park on the Potomac waterfront, they would find remnants
of a 19th-century ship buried long ago.

Instead, when construction workers called to report they had unearthed something near the 500 block of Union Street, it was a pair of 20th-century railroad tracks that could help tell the story of Alexandria’s industrial past.

“For me, the rail lines were sort of an inadvertent find,” said Garrett Fesler, an archaeologist with OHA. They’d become lodged in tree roots and were revealed as construction crews working on the Windmill Hill shoreline project pulled trees up.”

The crews, Fesler said, “did exactly what they’re supposed to do:” stop work and call in city archaeologists.

Upon further review, Acting City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen said the office decided that the majority of the buried rails wouldn’t be disturbed by construction.

The tracks were unearthed at a waterfront construction site (Courtesy Photo)

“We determined to take a stance of preserving some in place,” she said, while extracting those segments that might be impacted. “We removed a section, possibly for future use in historical interpretation.” Early community reaction included excitement at a possible link to Civil War-era railroad activity in the area, which proved unfounded.

While Breen said there was a post-bellum freight spur on the site built before 1877 to serve a car float that ferried laden railcars riverward, those tracks were gone by 1921 at the latest.

Sometime between 1921 and 1941, according to contemporary maps, a second railroad
line was built, exiting the Wilkes Street tunnel then curving across Union Street and briefly grazing the corner of the project site. It served an industrial site nearby and appeared on 1949 aerial photographs before disappearing by 1964, Breen said.

“We sort of trace the documentary history of this find,” Breen said, “which is what led us to believe that they’re probably 20th-century.”

The tracks’ sweeping shape, and the fact that they were found at so shallow a depth, suggests the more recent line, once part of the Southern Railway, was the one discovered.

The city had commissioned a detailed report on the site’s history ahead of development, as is required, Fesler said, and a different intriguing prospective discovery stood first in the archaeologist’s mind.

“The main focal point of what we were hoping to identify was a buried ship,” he said.
A small, prow-shaped peninsula appears on contemporary maps, and newspaper accounts led archaeologists to believe a derelict 1840s ship — the “Young Hero” — was scuttled there and used to create filled land.

“We very strongly believe that the ‘Young Hero’ boat was buried here, so that was one of our main concerns when they started this process,” he said.

Alas, no luck. The ship may have been disturbed by marina construction on the property between 1949 and the 1960s, Fesler said, or perhaps the “Young Hero” lies still deeper, beyond the reach of the current project, undiscovered by soil surveys and therefore best left undisturbed.

“Sort of like doctors, you know ‘do no harm,’ that’s kind of our guiding principle,” Fesler explained. “If it doesn’t need to be excavated and it’s not going to be impacted, then just leave it in place, let it be where it is.”

That was the fate of most of the rails. The Windmill Hill project — which aims to create a naturally sloping shoreline in place of an unsightly, often smelly stretch of waterfront bordered by seawall — wouldn’t have disturbed the rails, and they’re still in place for future archaeologists to discover.

The sections removed, now in storage, Breen said, may find use as interpretive artifacts hearkening to the Port City’s industrial past.

In the past, Fesler said, the city has “used railroad lines to show the different industrial zones of the city; … to give an echo of what it was in the past.” The recently discovered rail lines could have a similar value, to help visitors and residents remember the heritage, he said, and think about Alexandria’s evolution.

“It wasn’t always high-priced townhomes,” he said. “It was a working, thriving city.”