In our continuing series on deserving candidates for a historical marker, we take a look at Lomax’s Tavern.
The importance of taverns in Alexandria is reflected in several ways. A history of George Washington’s time spent in the city could start with his many visits to its taverns. Historical markers in the historic district touch on taverns, and “A Seaport Saga” devotes an entire chapter to the topic.
Thirsty salts and hungry citizens in Alexandria had no problems finding a place to satisfy their needs. By the time the city celebrated the turn of the century, dozens of taverns dotted the seaport’s streets. And they weren’t just a place for frothy imbibing. Town folk held meetings, gathered socially, caught up on news, and waited for the mail coach to arrive at taverns (the rural equivalent was called an “ordinary”).
(Image from T. Michael Miller's Fireside Sentinel. No indication given that this was a specific tavern).
In his research paper ("The Development of Early Taverns in Alexandria, 1850-1810"), James C. Mackay, Director of The Lyceum, notes just how difficult travel was in the 18th century. Taverns offered comfort and rest for the weary. Quality varied. He writes: “The better places might offer particularly nice stables, more expensive tablewares, a large room for balls or assemblies, French wine…”
The most famous tavern in Alexandria was Gadsby’s, the sole survivor and now one of the city’s most prized museums. Before John Gadsby, however, there was John Lomax. Around 1769, with the city just 20 years old, he built a tavern on the south side of Princess between N. Lee and N. Fairfax. Michael Miller notes it was in the middle of the block and says it “witnessed many historical gatherings.”
In his book, “Walking with Washington,” Bob Madison says this tavern was the center of social life in Alexandria. Washington’s diary reflects his frequent dining there. On November 15, 1784, businessmen from Virginia and Maryland gathered at a meeting at Lomax’s to establish the “Potowmack Canal Company.” George Washington was elected President. George Gilpin, John Fitzgerald, Thomas Johnson (first governor of Maryland) and Thomas Lee became Directors.
In August 1784, Washington escorted General Marquis de Lafayette to Lomax’s Tavern for the finest of dining and entertainment. Ethlyn Cox notes Washington also hosted Anne-Cesar, Chevalier LaLuzerne (1741-1791), France’s minister to the United States from 1779 to 1784, at Lomax’s.
John Lomax passed away in 1787. Cox notes Henry McCue took over the tavern. With Lomax gone, the clientele shifted to waterfront types.
The tavern lasted until around 1854. It is unknown what happened to the building after that date. That part of the city eventually transitioned away from waterfront and industrial uses (A passenger depot for the Alexandria, Hampshire and Loudoun Railroad stood at the northeast corner of Princess and N. Fairfax) and eventually became residential.
A resident of lower Princess Street recently told me the area was regarded as less than stellar when he arrived in 1971. These days you don’t hear any discouraging words there, except maybe a few grumbles when a homeowners’ favorite parking spot is taken up. A few are right where Lomax’s Tavern used to be.