For as long as anyone in Alexandria can remember, a walk along the city’s waterfront has been a good walk spoiled. A handful of riverside parks and the marina provide scenic access to the river, but close to the foot of King Street, the heart of the mile long stretch, two corrugated steel warehouses and a couple of junky smaller ones interrupt the walk and the spoil the scenery.
The good news is sometime in the not-too-distant future, each of those parcels will be redeveloped. Access to the Potomac River will return in the form of a continuous, waterfront path. Point Lumley Park, a long-neglected jewel will come alive. Dotting the way, new interpretive markers will inform the reader of the rich history of this part of the seaport.
Taking a step forward in that direction, the Alexandria City Council recently approved a developer’s plans for 220 S. Union. A non-descript, mid 20th century warehouse at the corner of Duke and S. Union will be demolished, making way for a boutique hotel.
Curious as always about pinpointing Alexandria’s past, we thought it a good idea to explore the history of this address and those around it.
Note: Since around 2000, The Art League has used this warehouse as an annex. They will move to another facility. The proposed hotel will include a new restaurant with outdoor dining, a pedestrian alley connecting The Strand and South Union Street, and a courtyard with public art and seating. The developer will fund improvements to Point Lumley Park.
Our friends in this look back are familiar sources, the research done by Alexandria Archaeology and others in the city’s historic community, including T. Michael Miller and his fabulous “Fireside Sentinels.” Ted Pulliam has also written about the history of the waterfront, as well as Diane Riker. We also consulted the Alexandria Waterfront Historic Plan and Donald Shomette’s invaluable “Maritime Alexandria.”
It’s always a treat to look at the original map of Alexandria, drawn in the year (1749) of its founding. 84 half-acre lots were laid out in the traditional grid form, but the town had a unique look to it. As if a geological gift, two legs of land jutted out from the banks of the Potomac River. In perfect symmetry, three blocks ran below Cameron Street, three above.
As one can imagine for a seaport, those two small peninsulas became hubs of activity. Even before the town’s birth, the northern leg was known as “West’s Point,” named after Hugh West, whose warehouses stored tobacco in the years leading up to the founding of Alexandria.
The southern tip got its name from a Captain Lumley, whose ship had squatter’s rights at the foot of Duke. As you can see from this overlay map, the hotel footprint is on land that was part of Point Lumley. The shoreline ran diagonally across the future site.
At West’s Point, a tobacco road ran down to the river. In Alexandria’s first couple of years, Point Lumley was not reachable this way. Duke Street essentially ended at S. Fairfax, where ten foot high bluffs looked down to the water. The situation was great for selling lots on S. Fairfax, terrible for the flow of goods to the river.
In 1751, the town’s trustees tabbed John Carlyle to grade and extend Duke Street all the way to Point Lumley. Carlyle, whose Georgian manor stands today as one of the most striking and oldest properties in the city, performed the landscape remake. He also built a public warehouse at Point Lumley. That warehouse is long gone. It’s hard to know for sure, but it appears part of its historic footprint reaches where the hotel will be built.
Another early big name in Alexandria was Thomas Fleming. Also a town trustee, he established a shipbuilding outfit on Point Lumley. His first effort was “The Ranger,” the first ship made in Alexandria. He also maintained George Washington’s brigantine, “The Farmer.”
The hotel’s most visible corner, at least in terms of car traffic, will be the northeast corner of Duke and S. Union. On that original town map of 1749, a small portion of Lot 69 was located there. Richard Arell (1719-1796) owned Lot 69. Arell gained famed as the operator of one of the town’s most popular taverns on Market Square. It was there in 1774 that George Washington headed up a meeting of angry Fairfax citizens. They wrote up “The Fairfax Resolves,” a statement to the mother country they would not tolerate unfair taxes.
T. Michael Miller points out Arell conveyed part of Lot 69 to William Hunter, Sr. Historians do not know what Hunter did with his property.
Due to a scarcity of lumber, Thomas Fleming gave up on shipbuilding. By then, the seaport was active in trade. In 1785, Col. Robert T. Hooe, Alexandria’s first mayor (house is at the corner of Prince and S. Lee), ran a busy warehouse at the point. He imported all kinds of products.
In the 1780s, the city began to fill in the cove. By 1798, Union Street had been laid out. By the time of the Civil War, the waterfront’s shape looked more or less like it does today. The Strand was filled with warehouses and wharfs, as seen in “View of the waterfront from Pioneer Mill.”
Across the foot of Duke Street lies the Robinson Terminal South, one of the warehouses we mentioned earlier. Built in 1937-1939, its redevelopment status is up in the air. Archaeologists are keen to explore this corner spot. Pioneer Mill rose up there in 1852. A landmark building, it was the largest flour mill in the country. Unfortunately, Pioneer Mill met a fiery fate in 1897, when one of the city’s worse fires destroyed it and other properties nearby.
Our first photographic look at Alexandria’s waterfront comes from the middle of the century. During the Civil War, two large storehouses stood on the hotel lot, used by the Union Army as a commissary. A city report also notes that a lumberyard may have been located there during 1880s and 1890s.
The new hotel and other improvements along the Strand will bring new life to Point Lumley, a small park which for years has been cut off to foot traffic and seems unsafe at night. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this part of Alexandria.
Issac Franklin and John Armfield operated one of the largest slave trading operations in the country. Starting in 1832, they sold as many as 1,000 enslaved humans each year. From their slave pen 13 blocks to the west, the human bondage was bound together by coffles and marched down Duke Street to the river. Franklin and Armfield owned three different ships that sent the human cargo to New Orleans for auction. The sight of the slaves in Alexandria prompted strong reaction from Quakers and others in the city who risked ridicule and harm for speaking out. The slave trade in Alexandria ended when the Union army took control over the city in 1861.
Almost a century later, another villainous trader set up shop on the waterfront. In 1953, Samuel Cummings, an arms dealer, established “Interarmco,” later changed to “Interarms.” An article in Sports Illustrated (Edwin Shrake, May 11, 1970), pointed out Cummings ran “the largest private independent weapons dealership in the world.” With warehouses in Alexandria and England, his inventory grew to 700,000 small arms. After Cummings death in 1998, the operation closed down a year later.
As noted by a city report, 220 N. Union “has the potential to provide information about the industrial development of Alexandria from the eighteenth century to the present.”
Indeed. When the flat-roofed warehouse is torn down, archaeologists will conduct their searches. No one knows what they will find, but we would like to point out something Shomette says in his book. As mentioned previously, the city filled in the cove in the 1780s. Some have assumed this was done with dirt. Shomette noted it’s likely that watercraft and other vessels were sunk and used as part of the fill in.
Stay tuned as Alexandria redevelops its long-neglected waterfront and knocks on the door of a new era of discovery.