As noted before, I’ve started in on a second edition of “River to Rails.” I will be looking inside public buildings, adding any new markers, and expanding the coverage for a mile or two beyond the two historic districts. As with the first edition, I will post the occasional preview.
Update: I have it from a reliable source the city will add 32 mini-kiosks by “late summer.” This is part of a phased roll out of a wayfinding program. Each kiosk will be four-sided and mounted to existing poles. I’m not sure how many of the 32 will have historical info, as the city document states seasonal events or public art will be on some of them.
Today we look at the engraved text at John Gadsby’s Ice Well. But before we get started, there’s an interesting backstory, if you will, behind this story.
In 2010, when I was walking the streets of the two historic districts looking for markers, this ice well was hidden from view. A small set of concrete steps led to it but I thought they led to a maintenance entrance or something. When I passed by, I didn’t think anything of it, other than, who would put a marker down there?
At some point later, I was walking by and thought to myself, I better check it. Sure enough, an old metal marker, bent in a few places, was there and you could see the ice well. It was the first time I had even heard of it.
Early last year I noticed the ice well stairs were lined off for construction. I hoped the completion of the work would arrive before my deadline. It was close, but it didn’t work out. The old marker was gone too.
The etchings are not actually markers but serve the same purpose. Winter time was harvest time, as blocks of ice from the Potomac River were put on carts and wheeled up Cameron Street to Gadsby’s City Tavern.
His well had a storage capacity of 62 tons, making it one of the biggest around. Starting in 1805, Gadsby sold ice to the public and used it to store perishable food items.
These pavers mark the perimeter of the ice well – up to 17 feet, 3 inches in diameter…
John Gadsby, who leased the tavern from John Wise in 1796, capitalized on ice as an amenity to the tavern,
Selling it to the public for eight cents per pound in 1805.
Blocks of ice, harvested from the Potomac River, were lowered through a hatch at the street level. The blocks were pounded into one large ice mass and covered with straw to limit melting.
This brick-lined ice well is a unique architectural feature, much larger than most urban ice wells. The well could store up to 62 tons of ice, enough to supply the tavern and even the citizens of Alexandria.
In 1793, the Alexandria Common Council granted permission for John Wise to build an icehouse underneath the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets as part of his construction of the new City Tavern.
A brick-lined tunnel led from the tavern’s basement to the ice well, allowing ice, chilling beverages, and perishable food items to be readily retrieved.
Subterranean Ice Well Constructed in 1793 for John Wise’s City Tavern.