In 2010, Alexandria Archaeology and the Office of Historic Alexandria published a 126-page report titled “Alexandria Waterfront History Plan.” One aspect of the plan deals with West’s Point. We know this riverside patch of land today as the two Robinson Terminal North warehouses at the end of Oronoco Street, and three blocks north of King Street.
With the news the owners of those two corrugated metal warehouses have put the property up sale, history buffs can begin to get excited that the history of West’s Point will finally be brought back to life.
Page 44 of the report lays out the vision for West’s Point, which is the earliest continuously occupied site of the city.
"West’s Point… represents the origins of Alexandria – and the idea of America – in the early to mid 18th-century and the importance of tobacco to the development of the town."
Heady stuff, wouldn’t you say?
A wooden sign stands at the foot of Oronoco, identifies the spot as West’s Point. It’s rarely seen, however, thus serving as a metaphor for how even more obscure is our knowledge of Hugh West, the man who planted Alexandria’s roots there.
Thanks to Jim Bish, the veil has been lifted on this pioneer’s major contributions to the initial spurts of growth in the seaport city.
In the Alexandria Chronicle (Spring 2010), Bish wrote a wonderful 19-page research report titled, “Hugh West and the West’s family’s momentous role in Founding and Developing Alexandria and Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Virginia.”
“the most critical family in establishing Alexandria and developing the region’s commercial interests were members of the West family and the most important member of that family in establishing Alexandria was Hugh West.”
Given the contributions of men like William Ramsay and John Carlyle, that’s saying a lot. But even if we don’t put Hugh West on the same shelve as those iconic figures, we owe him a lot.
Bish notes one of the reasons West has not gotten his due is because West family members are “difficult to identify in primary sources because of the duplication of names.” This has been a barrier to historians, who have tended to ignore West and focus on the gentry.
There’s quite a bit of material in Bish’s piece. Let’s look briefly at some of it, as well as a map we put together to show “before and afters” at West’s Point. Please note the location of West’s properties may not be spot on accurate, due to the hand drawn maps of his time.
Hugh West was born in 1705 in Stafford County, Virginia. Ten years later, he inherited some of West Grove Plantation, land we know today as the Belle Haven Golf Course, just south of Old Town (For a period of time, Alexandria was called “Belhaven”). Bish notes he probably grew up there. (Federal troops burned it down during the Civil War).
Knowing tobacco would continue to be a cash crop, West purchased a warehouse about a mile north of the family spread. At that time (1732), a crescent-shaped bay formed two points. West chose the northern most point which rubbed against a small bay and a marshy spit of land named “Ralph’s Gutt.”
Bish describes the warehouse as “about a 50-foot square, hewn, timber-framed building.” It was one of the first structures built along this part of the river. When the city laid out the streets in 1749, two streets intersected the point. Running down from Royal was Oronoco, named after the type of tobacco grown. Running parallel to the Potomac was Water Street (Lee).
Tobacco was rolling in from the Piedmont. The hogsheads needed storing and inspecting before the load onto ships for transport to England. West was sitting on a gold mine, a place that would become Alexandria’s first area of seaport activity.
After his first warehouse, West added several others. He also established an ordinary, and started a ferry service to Frazier’s Point (Oxon Hill Manor) on the Maryland side. He and his wife Sybil raised five children. John, Jr. became a surveyor, produced the “only official survey plat” of the new town of Alexandria and helped start Christ Church. George ran the ordinary. Sybil married John Carlyle.
West died in 1754, a sudden passing that left a void. Bish notes his legacy includes his helping establish the town, an excellent record of public service, and a model of success for his family.
A prime piece of real estate that holds the first roots of the city, for too many years not roamed by the public, will soon see the re-development process begin. We know this issue has divided the town. We hope the reconnecting with our history will help heal some of the wounds and right the good ship Alexandria that Hugh West helped launch.