The demolition of the Robinson Terminal South (Union, Duke, waterfront, Wolfe) is nearing completion. As mandated by Alexandria city code, archaeologists will be next on the site.
Previously we looked at potential finds from the 18th century for this block. Today we will look at what was on the site in the 1860s. Charles Magnus (1826-1900), famed for his lithographs, gave us our first look at Alexandria this way (Bird’s Eye View of Alexandria, 1863).
Let’s take a look.
(Many thanks to History Matters for their research paper on this site, the Alexandria Waterfront History Plan, as well as articles by Ted Pulliam, Diane Riker, and others).
As Ted Pulliam tells us ("Gunpowder, Flour, Fire and Heirs"), in the decade before the Civil War, the Alexandria waterfront block began to take on a more industrial character. Tobacco, the early strong export of the economy, was giving way to flour.
Reflecting this change was Pioneer Mill, the standout building on the block. In 1853, it rose up to a landmark height of six stories. The steam-powered mill was run by 135 employees, a number that doubled the next highest figure (Orange and Alexandria RR).
Knowing it would boost the economy, The Alexandria Gazette sang the mill’s praises. Snowden’s paper pointed out the mill was the second largest in the United States. Railroad cars arrived using a switch from the Union Street tracks.
Pioneer Mill had a checkered career. At the height of production, the need arose to make the shipping barrels for the flour instead of having them made elsewhere and brought in. In 1856, the 30 foot by 100 foot, two-story cooper’s shop rose up for this purpose. The current office brick building (2 Duke Street), which will see re-adaptive use, sits on its site.
During the Civil War, the Union used the mill for a commissary and store house.
Pioneer Mill shed
The columned-building in front of Pioneer Mill was a shed.
Cooper’s Shop (2 Duke Street built on foundation)
Although its view is blocked by the mill, the two-story building behind it was the Cooper’s Shop. Mill owner William Fowle had previously contracted with a firm in the piedmont of Virginia to make the wooden barrels. He then had this shop built to make them.
During the Civil War, the Union used the cooper’s shop as a soldier’s mess. On the south side, they erected a kitchen, which can be partially seen in white.
In 1896, a tornado ripped across parts of the strand. The southern part of the vacant Pioneer Mill and the Cooper’s Shop were damaged.
The full extant of the damage is not known. The Washington Evening Star wrote Pioneer Mill was badly damaged and the Cooper’s Shop was completely destroyed, with only the walls on one end left standing.
What happened next is not fully known, but it’s probable that new walls went up on the foundation of the Cooper’s Shop.
The next summer a fire swept across Duke Street and part of the Strand, which left Pioneer Mill as a brick shell and damaged the Cooper’s Shop.
Pulliam picks up on the story. Willie Taylor, operations manager of RTS, said that in 2006 he saw scorched beams in the northeast corner of ceiling of the building’s attic. This indicates the Cooper’s Shop was reconstructed before the fire.
In 1902, the replacement of the Cooper’s Shop was converted into a machine shop with an attached blacksmith shop. Eight years later, Emerson Engine Company acquired Pioneer Mill and demolished it. They built a boat engine manufacturing plant. In 1912 Emerson Engine Company acquired the machine shop at 2 Duke and ran a marine engine shop as an extension to plant next door.
In 1932, Emerson Engine’s boat engine plant (Pioneer Mill site) burned down. The site remained in ruins until 1944.
Kitchen (White extension seen behind Pioneer Mill)
During the Civil War, the Union built a one-story frame kitchen on the south side of the cooper’s shop. It was later torn down.
In 1843, the wharf was 175 feet long and 35 feet wide. It’s difficult to see its length in this photo, but it seems to have been cut back.
Saltbox shaped building near Wolfe Street
Another distinctive building lies at the corner of the Strand and Wolfe. This building, shaped like a salt box, could have been a tavern or a store.
One of the gabled houses stands out along the Strand. The rear of the Indigo Hotel seems to mimick this one, with the twin protruding stacks.
Further research could find the uses of the other gabled houses. One possibility is either a commission house (import/export) or a ship supply store. Most of these places went through a series of uses.
Orange and Alexandria Railroad
Talk about a picture worth a thousand words – the train seen on S. Union Street represents the coming of the iron horses. In 1848, the first locomotive chugged into town from Manassas (later all the way to Gordonsville). The line ran along Wilkes Street and used a tunnel below Lee Street (a rare reminder of the railroad days in the seaport) to get to Union Street before reaching the waterfront spurs. One of them was located at the corner of Duke and Wolfe. By the turn of the century, more than a half dozen lines would penetrate the city.
Not visible are three two and a half story dwellings along S. Union. These were built around 1800. In 1892-1893, Peter and Robert P. Aitchenson, owners of a lumber yard on the block, bought these homes. Several years later 308 and 310 were tore down. 308, two story brick with a horse’s pass on the left side, was used as a office and survived until 1937.
Our lens into the past is seen through the written and spoken word, maps, diaries, drawings and photographs. We know something about this block this way, but the final piece of the puzzle will be the archaeology. Three centuries worth of material await our searching and sifting.