The developers of a luxurious waterfront hotel in Alexandria, VA, put construction on hold for several months last year after their shovels struck the wooden hull of a ship. The city’s team of archaeologists sprang into action, unearthing part of a 50-foot vessel scuttled into place around 200 years ago that contained a special kind of treasure: a piece of Alexandria’s maritime past.
“In a lot of ways, that discovery allowed us to open up this whole site,” said Garrett Fesler, one of four city archaeologists. “The archaeology in most of Alexandria is driven by development. If they were just going to build on top of the land, rather than dig underground parking on the waterfront, they wouldn’t have found this.”
Yet this seaport artifact points to the very reason that Alexandria exists. In 1730, the British government established a tobacco warehouse on Hunting Creek, a Potomac tributary located within today’s city limits. The warehouse became the hub of a busy seaport, and the town was incorporated in 1779.
Today, Alexandria occupies more than 2 miles of shoreline along the Potomac River — just south of Washington, DC, inside the Capital Beltway.
Though the city is reimagining its relationship to the Potomac River as a tourism and lifestyle asset, the long-buried ship has generated new interest in its seaport heritage, remnants of which are displayed and interpreted at several places throughout the Old Town district. Construction of the Hotel Indigo, which led to the discovery, eventually continued on South Union Street with plans to open this May, offering views of the water and “traces of Alexandria’s colonial past” throughout the hotel.
The remains of the ship were removed from the site to begin the long process of preservation, with hopes that it will eventually be on public display.
Far from an accidental grounding, archaeologists believe the ship was deliberately buried in the 1790s to anchor the systematic extension of the city’s edge farther into the Potomac.
The Alexandria Archaeology Museum has a map that shows how residents in the 1700s “basically created 10 additional city blocks where they didn’t exist before,” as city archeologist Eleanor Breen put it, by filling in what had once been a crescent-shaped bay along the river.
Historians believe earth was pulled down from steep bluffs that had characterized the river’s edge to extend the city into the water, using old piers and ships as anchors for the fill dirt. This would have made it easier for 18th-century ships to access the bustling port.
Alexandria city historian Daniel Lee said during a tour of the city’s history museum that some might consider the 18th century to be the height of Alexandria’s seaport economy, when the main export was tobacco. Much of the city was built by merchants whose businesses relied on those exports, which later included the third largest sugar refinery in the country and the third largest domestic slave trade operation.
Remnants of that era, including a barrel of dried tobacco leaves to give visitors a sense of its scent, are on display at the museum, called The Lyceum. The white-columned building, founded as a grand hall and library in the 1830s, also provides a general overview of the city’s past.
A merchant’s quarters
One way to explore Alexandria’s waterfront past is to tour the historic Carlyle House on North Fairfax Street in Old Town. John Carlyle, one of the city’s wealthiest merchants and founders, built the house in 1753.
“This was riverfront property when the house was built,” said tour guide Lee Rodriguez. Shoreline engineering has changed that, and the house now sits several blocks from the water.
The first floor is filled with artifacts from Carlyle’s era, including a brightly wallpapered entryway, parlor and formal dining room where the businessman made deals and welcomed heads of state.
The second floor currently features exhibits from the house’s second life, after James Green purchased it in the mid-1800s. The Green family occupied the house during the Civil War, when the house and the opulent Mansion House Hotel he had constructed in the front yard were occupied as a Union hospital and soldiers’ quarters.
The Civil War period of the home and hotel is now the subject of Mercy Street, a series currently airing on PBS. The series has driven tourism to both the Carlyle House and the city of Alexandria, where the story is set, even though the series was filmed in Richmond, VA. (The William Ramsay House Visitor Center and VisitAlexandriaVA.com have information about Mercy Street-related tours and sites throughout the city.)
Susan Hellman, manager of the Carlyle House Historic Park, said that visitation to the house has been up by 150 percent since the series first aired in 2016.
“We do have a handout about the show and, of course, we can tell them about that time,” Hellman said. “But if you’re watching it and thinking, ‘Who built that house?’ we can tell them that, too.”
When the Georgian-style stone mansion was constructed, the city’s waterfront was still crescent-shaped and came as far as Lee Street, formerly Water Street.
At the end of Cameron Street, which is still visible from John Carlyle’s study, there used to be a wharf he helped build, “so he could watch his merchant ships pull right into his backyard and offload their cargo.”
Walk the waterfront
It’s hard to imagine the rough-and-tumble city that defined Alexandria’s seaport days, when sailors, longshoremen and prostitutes were more common sights than the tourists who now stroll the brick sidewalks, taking in the gas-lamped row houses.
“Old Town has looked like this since the urban renewal days of the 1960s,” Lee, the city historian, said during a walk toward Alexandria’s evolving waterfront.
A patch of green that separates Union Street from the river’s edge now makes up Founders Park, a grassy destination for dogs and families on the weekends. But, in the mid-1800s, “they say you couldn’t walk through here without getting covered in fish scales,” Lee said.
The “fish town” that filled the park consisted of several shacks where plentiful harvests of American shad and herring were processed after arriving at the port.
Walking south along the waterfront, which has become a centerpiece for tourism rather than trade, a more modern scene emerges. The sidewalk becomes a boardwalk near the marina, where visitors and residents can take a ferry across the river to Maryland’s National Harbor or into DC to see its cherry blossoms in the spring.
The boardwalk abuts the expansive Torpedo Factory Art Center, which was constructed during World War I and used during World War II to churn out ammunition before being converted into an art center in the 1970s. A rusted torpedo shell from 1945 sits just inside the facility’s boardwalk entrance as a testament to its past.
The city’s archaeology museum is in a corner of the building on its third floor.
The museum isn’t big enough to house the recently discovered ship, but archaeologists Breen and Fesler are hopeful the city will find a place for it — and perhaps others that have yet to be unearthed.
“Because there is so much activity and development on the waterfront,” Fesler said, “we would no longer be surprised if there are more ships to be found down there.”
General visitor information can be found at VisitAlexandriaVA.com. The William Ramsay House Visitor Center at 221 King St. is also a good starting point for your visit, providing maps, brochures, tickets and advice. Other sites and activities to consider:
- Alexandria Archaeology Museum in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., alexandriava.gov/archaeology
- The Lyceum: Alexandria’s history museum, 201 S. Washington St., alexandriava.gov/thelyceum
- Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax St., novaparks.com/parks/carlyle-house-historic-park
- Take a ferry: PotomacRiverBoatCo.com
- Take a self-guided walking tour or biking tour of the city: AlexandriaVa.gov/historic