The accumulated but diminishingly finite cultural remnants of Alexandria's once considerable maritime heritage now rests beneath the waters of the Potomac River, Great Hunting Creek, Oronoco Bay, and perhaps even beneath lands that have been reclaimed from the waters. - "MARITIME ALEXANDRIA, An Evaluation of Submerged Cultural Resource Potentials at Alexandria, Virginia." Report prepared forAlexandria Archaeology Office of Historic Alexandria City of Alexandria, Virginia by Donald G. Shomette. January 1985
With the demolition of 220 S. Union Street (Arts Center Annex) now complete, archaeologists with the Thunderbird Company and Alexandria Archaeology are now searching and sifting for artifacts at the site.
Ho-hum, some might say. Old Town has been searched below many times in the past 50 years. Others, who live and work nearby, have to deal with the dust, disruptions and noise of construction (Hotel Indigo).
All true, but this particular site, once part of Point Lumley, could produce noteworthy findings. The City’s Waterfront History Plan says as much by pointing out:
Many important historic sites along the waterfront remain unexplored and untouched by archaeologists. Much is yet to be discovered about Alexandria’s past on the waterfront, and valuable materials still exist at places such as West’s Point and Point Lumley, as well as elsewhere.
This particular site is promising because the original shoreline ran diagonally through it. When the City was founded in 1749, 10-15 feet cliffs dropped down from Fairfax Street to Water Street (Lee). In the 1780s, George Gilpin supervised the smoothing of these heights.
We know those soils created the landfill that forms our current straight waterfront from Duke to Oronoco, and that half this lot is part of that landfill.
But how exactly was that accomplished?
In his book, “Maritime Alexandria,” Donald Shomette writes about the landfill process.
The methodology of accomplishing one of the most dynamic acts of land reclamation in the Chesapeake tidewater on a planned basis is, unfortunately, left largely to supposition owing to the lack of records… Just how Gilpin reclaimed the river from Union Street remains a mystery…
One strong possibility for ready waterfront extension was the sinking of derelict watercraft, scows, shallops, barges, or other vessels to form bulkheads behind which fill could be placed.
I’ve been visiting this site for more than a week now. I desperately wanted to talk to the archaeologists about this, but at the same time, I did not want to distract them from their work.
He also pointed out a contrast in the dirt. We agreed it sure does look like the line is precisely where the old shoreline ran.
The archaeologists will probably be on site for another ten days. For some, including the hotel owners, this will seem like ten weeks (Don’t worry, they will make their money and then some).
But this site could be a gold mine for the historic community. And I can tell you without hesitation we are in good hands. Both Thunderbird and Alexandria Archaeology, who have worked in tandem on many previous digs, have a stellar record of archaeological investigations.
So we wait with fingers crossed. Clues and even answers to a long-time waterfront mystery might surface in the coming days.