The hits just keep on coming in Old Town Alexandria.
Although it wasn’t on the scale of two recent unearthings from the 18th-century – a waterfront warehouse and a ship hull - another discovery was made in Old Town Alexandria earlier this week (thanks for the heads up Hal!). At the intersection of S. Fairfax and Prince streets, city street workers uncovered some embedded railroad tracks.
No big surprise there. At one time, railroad lines seemed to permeate the seaport. On the other hand, there’s no railroad museum here, and other than the Wilkes Street Tunnel, all but a few traces of the iron horse heydays have vanished.
Looking for answers, rail buffs pulled down their cherished copy of John E. Merriken’s terrific book – “Old Dominion Trolley Too, A History of the Mount Vernon Line.” He covers the story of the Washington, Alexandria & Mount Vernon Electric Railway Company like a blanket. It seems very likely the tracks at Prince and Fairfax were part of this line.
For this line of trolleys, much is owed to Griffith E. Abbot, founder and first president of the New Alexandria Company. In a bit of an odd career move, he traded in his stethoscope in Pennsylvania for the big dreams of an industrialist. The company financed and built the W-A-MV line in the first half of the 1890s.
The trolley cars certainly benefitted the town of Alexandria. The main reason, however, the company built the 14-mile long line was to service their new waterfront town south of Alexandria. They named it New Alexandria.
For many years, the only way across Great Hunting Creek was where the horses could cross at modern day Telegraph Road. Around 1820, the Henry Street Bridge, which we know today as Route 1, carried folks and cargo across the water and mud. That span was located about a half mile upstream from New Alexandria. The new town needed a direct north-south link with Alexandria.
In the summer of 1892, the company built a 3,000-foot long bridge across the mouth of Great Hunting Creek. The wooden-pile structure was used primarily to carry the trolleys used for the Washington, Alexandria, Mount Vernon Electric Railway.
By 1896, the full length of the line was completed. The streetcars ran for about 15 miles from the ticket station at 13th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW to Mount Vernon. Excited Alexandrians watched the first cars clamor down King Street on September 18, 1892.
The Washington Post filed several reports:
“The running of the electric cars in Alexandria is such a novelty that almost the entire population turned out yesterday to witness the scene. All day long the cars were crowded, and the company reaped a rich harvest.”
“The crowds yesterday were greater than the number of cars could carry, but 2,500 people went over the road.”
“On each side, Fairfax Street was jammed with people. The crowd was so great that it was impossible for the cars to run on the time set for them.”
Merriken tells us about a change the company made in 1894. In the first two years (1892-1894), the line ran down King, made a right on Fairfax, went a half-dozen blocks and turned right on Franklin, went one block and made a left on Royal. Then it crossed over on the new bridge, before the run down to Mount Vernon.
His book has a fascinating photo showing the Franklin to Royal turn. Unlike today with homes and St. Mary’s School filling the picture, about all one sees are the tracks and what looks like 424 Franklin Street and its gardens there. The cemetery was certainly there but is mostly out of focus.
In 1894, the company engineers decided to make the King Street turn at Royal Street. This was completed in September 1894.
It is doubtful however, that any savings were realized through this improvement, for an unyielding town council continued to enforce the original ordinance which required hourly service along the old line on Fairfax Street just one block away, an absurd duplication that lasted for at least another 2 and ½ years.
A hand drawn map Merriken provides in his book shows the rail line running on Prince between Fairfax and Royal. This opened in 1903.
Another map shows this loop (King, S. Fairfax, Prince and S. Royal) for 1907 to 1932. Merriken notes, “King Street trackage east of Fairfax Street abandoned in 1910.”
Around this time, the company installed a station at the southwest corner of S. Royal and Prince. His maps show the main station being located at the northeast corner of Cameron and N. Fayette.
For many years, the tracks of other railroad companies ran along N. Fayette. In fact, several years ago, workers discovered embedded rails at 620 N. Fayette Street. A marker there notes this discovery and a small stretch of the rails was preserved.
Rail buffs should also note that a portion of tracks is visible at the northwest corner of Duke and S. Henry street. It’s another rare nod to Alexandria’s railroad days.