The complete build-out of Potomac Yard, the fast rising neighborhood located between Old Town Alexandria, Del Ray and Crystal City, is still years away. In less than three years, however, after the first residents moved in, the City of Alexandria and Pulte Homes have erected over a dozen interpretive markers.
In addition to texts and images, each one provides an historic map or two. We put together a collection of some of them to help us understand a bit more about this unique space.
Time period: Native American and Colonial
One or more of the roads you travel on in the DMV may very well have been built along a path carved out by Native Americans. One of the first was the “Potomac Path.” This marker shows a map drawn by Joshua Fry and Peterson Jefferson in 1751 (“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.”)
A red line overlay shows the probable location of the Potomac Path.
It should be noted this path turned east about two miles south of the future site of Potomac Yard. In the 1740s, a ferry ran across the Potomac to Georgetown, so colonial era travelers did traverse these lands.
One of the earliest well-marked maps for this part of Northern Virginia is the “1741 Howson Patent.” In 1669, John Alexander (1605-1677), an immigrant from Scotland, purchased these 6,000 acres on land now occupied by Old Town and Potomac Yard.
Some have written that Alexandria is named for Alexander. This marker updates the information, noting it may have been named after the family, which maintained this property for more than 240 years.
Another interesting item from this map, drawn about eight years before Alexandria’s founding in 1749, shows that Townsend Dade and W. Baldwin Dade also owned some of the Howson Patent land. I had never seen these two names before. Further research would be interesting.
Time Period: 1800s
Tidewater Virginia was blessed with rivers flowing from the piedmont, but rolling roads were soon needed to transport hogsheads full of tobacco to makeshift ports and inspection stations such as Alexandria. These roads were not enough, as the population grew.
This marker notes one of the most important roads was Washington & Alexandria Turnpike. It got its start in 1808 and connected the two cities, as well as bringing in goods and residents to the seaport city and area. One of the granite markers notes the turnpike was the first direct road between Alexandria and Long Bridge, the forerunner of the 14th Street Bridge. It “quickened travel to the nation’s capital and served as the primary mail route.”
As seen on this map (“Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington, including the counties of Fairfax and Alexandria, Virginia, 1878”), Route 1 (Jefferson Davis Highway) runs along or close to where the turnpike ran through the Potomac Yard future site. An overlay shows this to be the western edge of Potomac Yards.
With the advent of canals and railroads, the turnpike saw less and less traffic.
About 25 years after the Washington and Alexandria Turnpike was built, plans were drawn up for the Alexandria Canal. It was built between 1831 and 1843. Being connected with the Chesapeake and Ohio canal helped Alexandria prosper. Coal was the major product shipped, as well as wheat, corn, whiskey, cornmeal and flour.
This 1838 map shows the seven miles of the Alexandria Canal between Alexandria and Georgetown. The entire system was 185 miles. The advent of railroads and steam-powered vessels signaled the end of the canal, which closed down in 1886.
The sight of the first railroad chugging toward Alexandria must have been quite an exciting moment. It took place in 1853 with the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad, which connected Alexandria with the farms in the piedmont and points westward.
One year later, the Alexandria and Washington Railroad transported passengers between the two cities.
Time Period: 1900s
If so, it would not be the first time such public transportation served these parts. In 1892, the Washington, Alexandria & Mount Vernon (WA&MV) Electric Railroad opened. As this map shows (those are ice crystals from this morning!), it traveled through Del Ray along Commonwealth Avenue, with stops at today’s streets – Alexandria, Monroe, Bellefonte, Del Ray, Mount Ida, Ashby - and Four Mile Run Park. Service extended to Mount Vernon, one of the area's most popular tourist destinations at that time.
One of the markers points out that this route " quickly expanded into an interurban line, enabling middle-class federal employees working in Washington, D.C., to move to new “streetcar suburbs” west of Potomac Yard."
Streetcars lasted longer in the District and Maryland than in Virginia. This line closed down in 1932 due to competition from buses and automobiles.
(It should be noted this line about a half mile from Potomac Yard, thus not as much information about streetcars is given).
In her paper on the history of Potomac Yard, Fran Bromberg (Alexandria Archaeology) explains its origins.
With multiple rail companies serving each region at the turn of the twentieth century, there was no central location for the transfer of freight between the northern and southern lines (Mullen 2007:47). The situation was particularly difficult in Alexandria, where a significant bottleneck occurred with all these rail lines trying to pass through town. East/west City streets were blocked, as 20 to 30 trains per day came through on Fayette and Henry streets. With the rising volume of rail traffic, the system became increasingly unwieldy, and a movement to beautify Washington took up the cause to get the railroads out of the cities (Griffin 2005). The solution took shape as an unusual business undertaking, when six competing railroads agreed to band together to construct the rail yard and facilitate the movement of freight between the northern and southern rail lines. Potomac Yard, known as the “Gateway Between the North and the South,” became the largest railroad yard for freight car interchange on the east coast. When Potomac Yard opened on August 1, 1906, it had 52 miles of track that could handle 3,127 cars. The yard grew to a maximum of 136 miles of track crammed into a 2 1⁄2 to 3 mile stretch of land. At its peak, it serviced 103 trains daily (Griffin 2005; Carper 1992; Mullen 2007:47, 49).
As one of the granite markers points out, Potomac Yard was a “freight classification yard that revolutionized the railroad industry.” It opened in 1906 and spread out over 450 acres with 52 miles of track. Peak production required 24/7 operations. More than 1,200 workers worked one of three shifts.
The blue and white interpretive marker explains the process:
Most trains entering the Yard were composed of rail cars bound for different destinations. One train entering the Yard might contain cars bound for five or more cities. To increase efficiency, these trains were “switched” (or dismantled) and reassembled into different trains where all the cars were headed to the same location, or at least a destination along the same route.
Competition from trucks and airplanes brought about the end of operations. Potomac Yard closed down in 1992.
The tracks and trains of the old Potomac Yard are gone, but ever restless, the new neighborhood there continues to teem with activity. Metro, Amtrak and VRE keep the east side busy, while the west side sees streaming traffic along Route 1 and soon the buses on the dedicated lanes. In between, construction continues for homes, offices and retail.
One day in the not too distant future, someone will provide a map of the completed neighborhood. We bet it won’t be the last one for this unique space in Alexandria.