By Hal Hardaway
Alexandria needs to do a better job of celebrating our waterfront. Many residents may not be aware of the many facets of our storied history. Here are a few highlights:
Alexandria’s waterfront history spans more than 400 years, and that’s just non-Native American – Alexandria Archaeology has dug up a 13,000 year old Clovis point. For starters, John Smith cruised by circa 1608, surveying the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Also in the 1600s, John West built a tobacco wharf at the foot of Oronoco Street for exporting tobacco to England. Trade there led to a tobacco inspection station circa 1730. Note that Alexandria’s seal shows tobacco scales superimposed on a sailing ship. Such activity led to the Virginia House of Burgesses chartering the town of Alexandria in 1749, and George Washington surveying the original lots and naming the streets.
Hometown boy George Washington helped precipitate the French and Indian War when he tangled with the French in 1754 in the Ohio River Valley. As a result, in 1755, British General Braddock arrived at Oronoco Street with 23 ships and troops, to fight the French and Indian War, which triggered the Seven Years War in Europe, India and the West Indies. This in reality was the first world war, and it was rooted in Alexandria.
A suspected warehouse of Robert Hooe, the first mayor of Alexandria, was recently unearthed on the 300 block of South Union. Hooe’s privateers ran the Royal Navy blockade to run arms from the Caribbean to the colonies during the American Revolution.
It’s fitting that General George Washington’s aide and early Alexandria mayor, John Fitzgerald, built a warehouse that is still extant at the waterfront’s epicenter – it’s now the Starbucks at the foot of King Street. In 1790, the first marker for the District of Columbia, of which we were part until retrocession in 1847, was laid in Alexandria.
Moving to the 1800s, seven Royal Navy ships seized Alexandria in 1814, while the White House was burning. The mayor rowed out with a white flag and wisely surrendered, as Alexandria’s fighting-age men were away defending Washington. Otherwise the Brits would likely have leveled Alexandria. These same ships sailed onward to Baltimore and attacked Fort McHenry, inspiring Frances Scott Key to write our national anthem.
In May 1861, Union troops landed on Alexandria’s waterfront and marched to the Marshall House Hotel – now The Alexandrian – resulting in the first officer fatality of the war.
Battery Rodgers, a Union coastal artillery unit, was built in the vicinity of Franklin Street. It was constructed to prevent Confederate Navy ironclads from sailing up the Potomac and attacking Washington. The United States Military Railroad barge/railcar transloading facility in the vicinity of Windmill Hill Park supplied the Army of the Potomac downriver. This incorporated a first for non “break of bulk” transmodal shipping, i.e., containerized shipping was invented on our waterfront.
WWI generated the U.S. Navy’s Torpedo Factory on our waterfront, which produced torpedoes until 1945. The the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation was built during WWI at Jones Point; nine ships were built there.
That’s just our waterfront’s nation-building and military history. There is also significant commercial and shipbuilding history, such as the Alexandria Canal, factories along the waterfront, etc. There were even two airplane factories, and earlier what some say was the largest flour mill in the United States. The port of Alexandria is one of the reasons the site for D.C. was chosen.
All of this and more is comprehensively and eloquently described in History Appendix 6 of Alexandria’s Waterfront Plan. So where is the celebration of our maritime heritage? Granted, the Waterfront Plan spans 20 to 30 years, but Alexandria has been around officially for 269 years. Yet, the only historical interpretation on our waterfront seems to be that of the National Park Service.
We can do better than that, much better.
The writer is a retired U.S. Navy Captain.