Archaeologists excavate remnants of Pioneer Mills

Archaeologists excavate remnants of Pioneer Mills
A construction crew and Thunderbird archaeologists work to excavate the Robinson Terminal South site (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

The site of Robinson Terminal South, where the eastern edge of Duke Street meets the waterfront, is teeming with activity.

Many of the workers on site are archaeologists, though, and they aren’t building – they’re delving down into layers of history. They’re from Thunderbird, the archaeological division of Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., which is working in partnership with Robinson Terminal South developer EYA.  Recently, they uncovered the foundation of the Pioneer Mills, a flour mill that dates back to 1854.

The Alexandria
Archaeology office
hosted a site tour on Tuesday morning, inviting
members of the public to ask questions and see progress of Thunderbird
Archaeology’s excavation
of the Pioneer Mills site, which was built in 1854 (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

The city hosted a public site visit on Tuesday morning, where representatives from Alexandria Archaeology and Thunderbird were on hand to answer questions. Both parties have been working closely with EYA on preservation efforts. While the city supervises the site, Thunderbird performs the hands-on work.

The foundation, which spans 122 feet by 112 feet, offers a glimpse inside the operation of Pioneer Mills, which, at its peak, produced thousands of barrels of flour per month that were shipped down the Potomac River, into the Atlantic Ocean and up the east coast.

Despite going through numerous changes of ownership, as well as facing a number of starts and stops due to economic challenges, the building endured through Union occupation during the Civil War, Reconstruction and until the dawn of the 20th century.

After it ceased to be a working flour mill, the Pioneer Mills building was used as storage, a grain elevator and warehouse, a ship building facility and a wood vulcanizing facility before

A circa 1864 photo of Pioneer Mills (Photo Credit: Alexandria Library)

being severely damaged by a cyclone in 1896 and having its interior destroyed by a fire one year later, according to a History Matters report from 2014.

In the 1920s, after the building was demolished and replaced, first an airplane manufacturing facility then the Emerson Engine Company operated on the site, before the building was again destroyed by fire in 1932, according to the report. In 1944, Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corporation began to build a one-story brick maintenance building at the former Pioneer Mills location.

The building, which was later converted and merged, was eventually used as a Washington Post warehouse. The newspaper giant sold the property at 2 Duke St. to EYA in 2013. The developer plans to build luxury condominiums, townhouses and retail space once the excavation is completed. Construction on the development was scheduled to begin in summer of this year and span until fall of 2019, with a tentative opening date of summer 2019.

The Pioneer Mills/Robinson Terminal site has a rare combination of rich history and preservation. Archaeologists have even found remnants of 18th- and early-19th-century homes within the block-wide construction zone on the waterfront, between Duke and Wolfe streets. Thunderbird Principal Archaeologist John Mullen said he’s found pieces of Native American artifacts.

Robinson Terminal South’s preservation is unusual, according to Garrett R. Fesler, an archaeologist with the city, who was present at the site visit.

“I’ve been calling it Alexandria’s Pompeii,” Fesler said. “We didn’t have a volcanic eruption, but we’ve found slabs of Robinson Terminal well-preserved … A site like this has not been encountered yet in the city of Alexandria.”

Mullen said the site stands out for a number of reasons.

“It’s unique to be on the waterfront,” Mullen said. “It’s unique to find an entire city block.”
City archaeologist Eleanor Breen said the excavation will continue to go deeper.

Archaeologists haven’t ruled out the possibility of there being more underneath the former Pioneer Mill site – perhaps, they mention, another ship similar to the one discovered during excavation for construction of Hotel Indigo, which now stands at 222 S. Union St. It would be familiar territory for Thunderbird, which excavated the 18th-century ship.

Next, archaeologists will dismantle the foundations of Pioneer Mill piece by piece to explore what’s below. After the excavation, EYA plans to add yet another use to the former Pioneer Mills site: a parking garage.