Real estate geeks in the DMV got some small but noteworthy news last week. As reported by Daniel J. Sernovitz with The Washington Business Journal, Arlington-based Paradigm Development Co. announced they have begun construction on a 505-unit apartment complex at 2250 Mill Road. Scheduled to open in 2015, the Park Meridian will rise to 25 stories on a parcel (Block 19) east of the Eisenhower Avenue Metro Station in Alexandria.
Some Old Town residents may never look over their shoulder to this part of the city, but it is slowly gaining momentum as an urban village option. Across the street, workers are busy breaking ground for a new National Science Foundation headquarters (2,100 workers). Home to over 5,000 residents, the combined neighborhood of Carlyle/Eisenhower East currently employs more than 25,000 people. And as a city planning document states Eisenhower East has “promise for the greatest concentration of new development within the City limits in the coming decades.”
At first glance, this part of Alexandria appears to hold very little history. Most memories know it as a backwater that served as the city’s junky backyard.
Believe it or not, this parcel of land where Park Meridian will rise and the ones around it does have a history that goes back further than the founding of Alexandria. We have written about it before but let’s take a deeper look.
Around 1730, almost 20 years before the founding of Alexandria, the village of Cameron sprung up at the crossroads of Great Hunting Creek and former Indian paths to and from the south (Telegraph Road) and to and from the west (Duke Street/Little River Turnpike).
Prior to this time, colonial tobacco planters in Virginia had been content to stuff their leafs in to hogsheads and roll them eastward to the nearest wharf on the Potomac River. When the tall ships arrived from England, they unloaded their goods and took on the tobacco for the return trip to the Mother Country.
This method allowed the planters to mix poorer quality tobacco with the good stuff, and was inefficient in the minds of the investors in England. Desiring to improve the quality of the leaf, The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 mandated dozens of inspection stations along the river where the product was inspected, stamped, stored and readied for shipment. Places like Dumfries and Colchester were born out of this new law.
With tidewater settlers expanding northward, plantation owners in Fairfax County needed a port of their own. In 1748, a group of powerful men petitioned the House of Burgesses to charter a town at a point on the Potomac River where Hugh West had set up tobacco warehouses and a small settlement. We know this spot today as the foot of Oronoco Street in Old Town.
A powerhouse group signed the petition, including Thomas Lord Fairfax, his cousin William Fairfax, Lawrence Washington, the older half brother of George Washington (just 16 at the time) and John Carlyle, a merchant from Scotland who would build a grand Georgian manor in the new town.
Their case was rock solid. A roadblock appeared, however, when John Alexander, owner of the land north of Great Hunting Creek, asked the House to deny the Fairfax group’s petition. He did not want to sell his property, so he threw in with another group who touted the Cameron village site.
The Cameron group members don’t seem as impressive as its rival, but they made a good case in terms of location. In the mid-1740s, John Minor and Colonel John Colville had purchased land along Great Hunting Creek, and about two miles southwest of the West Point site. Consisting of a tavern, a gristmill, and a few homes, the village rose up along the north side of the creek. The waters were deep enough in those days, allowing the ocean-going vessels to reach the village.
The Cameron group also touted the fact that, unlike the Fairfax proposal, their land lay at a crossroads, a logistical hub in the parlance of our day.
In April, the Committee of Propositions and Grievances awarded the town to the Fairfax group. Alexandria, alternatively called Belle Haven, was founded on July 9, 1749.
The story of Cameron has been lost in the shuffle. But as a marker at Jones Point points out, the town prospered into the 1800’s until siltation reduced the port’s usefulness. Cameron remained “a distinct area of settlement for many years, gaining its own boatyard, racetrack, and flour mill.”
In her book, “Walk and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail,” Pamela Cressey provides excellent information on two mills that were located along Cameron Run. An interpretive marker by the Eisenhower Metro Station, and across from the Park Meridian site, also gives info and photos.
Shirley Scalley wrote “Cameron Mills,” a report summary of an archaeological dig (44AX112) made in the 1990s.
In the latter stages of the 18th century, after depleted soils led to the reduction in tobacco growing, planters turned to growing wheat. Dozens of flourmills were built all across Northern Virginia, including a surviving mill on nearby Wheeler Avenue with a Dutch Colonial roof and occupied by a construction company.
In 1848, Robert F. Roberts, a Quaker with a strong work ethic, bought the Cameron mills. Three years later, his eastern mill served Alexandrians by becoming a pumping station. Led by Benjamin Hallowell, the Alexandria Water Company pumped the water into a reservoir by Shuter’s Hill. This operation lasted for over a century.
The remaining mill operated until around 1919. It produced flour, meal, and feed. Walter Roberts owned the mill at one point, as well as a grain and feed store on Union Street and Wales Alley. His name lives on at Virtue Feed and Grain Restaurant.
In land now occupied on and near the Hoffman 22, archaeologists discovered the mill race, remains of the Roberts family home and the West family burial vault. The western mill building was destroyed by fire in 1928.
In the 1930s, Edmund Hunt Roberts and his wife ran Cameron Farm. In the 1960s, the Capitol Beltway was built just south of the future neighborhood, part of it running along the bed of the dried up portion of Great Hunting Creek. In 1983 the Metro’s Yellow Line to Huntington was completed with a penultimate stop at Eisenhower Avenue. For many years this station produced few riders.
Any history of this land must include the late Hubert N. Hoffman. John Kelly told his story in an article titled “Answer Man Uncovers a Memorial to a Dream” (August 26, 2006). In 1958 the Washington native founded the Hoffman Company and bought dozens of acres at this part of the city. People thought he was nuts to think he could turn the backwater into a thriving neighborhood.
The Eisenhower East neighborhood is still more than a decade away from full build out. But we bet those original dwellers in Cameron would be amazed at what has already taken place where they once worked and lived. Like a phoenix, this part of Alexandria rises again.