When I started out with my survey of commemorative markers in the summer of 2010, the only type of marker I came across were the historical plaques. These are typically made of bronze, are affixed to the front of a building or home (believe it or not, two are located on the side) and constitute the majority of markers in Old Town and Parker-Gray.
Working my way to the waterfront, I came across the set of interpretive markers at Ford’s Landing. With a purist’s pride, I wondered, are these commemorative markers? Should I include them?
At that moment of crisis, some clarity came to my project. Curiosity and ambition had put me on the sidewalks. Equally important, however, is sharing the information. So I quickly decided, yes, by all means, include the interpretive markers.
In the Old Town area, historical plaques outnumber interpretive markers by a significant margin. But the latter constitute the future for commemorative marking in Alexandria. They had a housewarming party of sorts last month, when the City and the National Park Service opened Jones Point Park to the public. 20 new interpretive markers, a sight to behold. The work behind them is a herculean effort, and the result is a triumph.
I am now finished with transcribing their text. I already knew some of the history, but these markers contain quite a few gold nuggets. One that stands out is marker number 7, which covers some of the history of the Jones Point Lighthouse.
As the wording notes, gambling barges and floating brothels were once part of the landscape at Jones Point. There’s very little on the web on this, so I searched the Washington Post via Proquest. A February 1993 article by Paul Hodge ("Alexandria Workers Find Relic") covers the discovery of a sunken houseboat in the Old Town Yacht Basin. Turns out it was a floating brothel.
In his book, “This Was Potomac River,” Frederick Tilp spends several pages on this colorful history. After the Civil War, cheap houseboats, called “Potomac Arks,” were built for shipyard workers and fishermen. After they abandoned them, gamblers and prostitutes bought the boats and set up their operations. At the turn of the century, overcrowding on the Washington marinas forced the boats to the Virginia and Maryland shores.
On the Virginia side, these pleasure boats were found from Arlington all the way down past Mount Vernon. Alexandria’s red light district buzzed when foreign vessels steamed into the seaport. According to Tilp, a fancy boat Dream operated off Jones Point. By the 1960s, they boats had wore out their welcome. Police busted up the operations and put them out of business.
By the way, my intention with pointing out this part of Alexandria’s history is not to snicker or feel schadenfreude.
Quite the opposite. I want to show the long reach of these interpretive markers, and point out the integrity of those who brought them to us. The Jones Point Lighthouse has been whitewashed, but the history of this place has not.