Founded on the western shore of the Potomac River in 1749, and eventually sandwiched in between Great Hunting Creek and Four Mile Run, the city of Alexandria has always been a westward growing city. Save a street name in Del Ray, the term “East Alexandria” has no meaning.
There was once, however, an “East Alexandria Railroad.”
Let’s take a look at this fascinating and forgotten piece of the city’s history.
Railroads, still vital to the nation and in some cases seeing an increase in the number of passengers, are an important part of our nation’s history. In Washington, things got going with the Baltimore and Ohio. Its owners saw gold to the west, but they also knew the importance of a north-south connection with the Federal capital. The B&O completed a Baltimore to Washington line in 1835.
A good number of railroad lines would eventually be built in and around Washington and Alexandria. There might have been even more, but the Potomac River had a say in that one. The only permanent crossing point across the mighty river was along the Long Bridge. Its first version was built in 1808 for foot, horse and stagecoach traffic, and financed in part by tolls. Just north of National Airport, its current version spans the river along with four other bridges that make up the 14th Street complex (I-395 North, South, Express and Metro’s Yellow Line).
On an early summer day in 1851, the seaport of Alexandria stirred with excitement never seen before. The city had a fine history of waving their hats during parades and tall-ship launches.
But this day helped usher in a short, but prosperous period before the Civil War that would see the city’s population grown from 8,800 to 12,600. The Orange and & Alexandria, which would eventually run all the way from Alexandria to Lynchburg, featured a stock of steam-powered locomotives. One of them hauling wheat blew its whistle on Union Street. Within a few years, three other lines would connect to the city and its waterfront warehouses. Farm products from the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley, once transported on Conestoga wagons, arrived much quicker on the new iron horses. A slow, bumpy trip on a stagecoach became a thing of the past.
In the 1850s, the B&O and the Pennsylvania Railroad went to war over the exclusive rights to cross the Potomac along the Long Bridge. The B&O had been the first railroad to serve the nation’s capital, building that branch from its main line in 1835. Being first might get you bragging rights and a foot in the door. The magnates with the Pennsylvania RR, however, knew whoever greased the wheels inside the Capitol would come out the real winner.
Indeed. Congress favored the Pennsylvania Line (nicknamed the “Pennsy”), a step they took towards becoming a dynasty. In 1872, they completed a branch from Bowie, through Washington, and crossing over the Long Bridge.
In the pantheon of great railroad magnates, one sees the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Collis Huntington. On a smaller scale, John W. Garrett, President of the B&O, also earned respect and admiration. In her forthcoming biography, “John W. Garrett and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad,” Kathleen Waters Sander describes him as “among the great power brokers of the time.” Born in Baltimore and the leader of the B&O from 1858 to 1884, he played a “unique role in the nation’s great railroad drama.”
The vast majority of Garrett’s attention was focused on east to west tracking, that desire to tap into the interior of the country. But he did not give up on the north to south route that went through Washington and Alexandria, the gateway to the south.
Garrett faced two rivals in trying to achieve that goal. The biggest was of course, the PRR’s monopoly on the Long Bridge, which was the only way across the Potomac for the rails.
His other rival in Washington was Alexander Robey Shepherd. Many people in the city were on a first name basis with him. They called him “Boss.”
In his new book, “Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital,” John Richardson tells us his subject “was one of the most influential local figures in the nation’s capital in the nineteenth century.”
As head of the Board of Public Works (1871-1873) and then serving as the Territorial Governor of the District of Columbia (1873-1874), Shepherd modernized the city. The improvements he made included filling in the Washington Canal, paving and lighting the streets, installing street cars, and planting 64,000 trees.
Shepherd certainly knew the importance of railroads. He was no friend, however, of the Baltimore and Ohio. Instead, Shepherd favored a handful of local railroad lines. He also had a distaste for the unsightliness of the B&O’s switchyards and supply sheds, which covered parts of the Mall near the Capitol. Part of their line ran in front of the Capitol on First Street. The visual blight was anathema to his plans of beautifying Washington. In 1872, the Boss snapped his fingers and the tracks and supporting infrastructure were removed.
With the Long Bridge not available and Shepherd in the way, the B&O would have to think outside the box. John Garrett did exactly that by creating a new line, a back door approach to Alexandria, if you will. Starting from their landmark brownstone station near the Capitol (New Jersey and C Street, NW), the B&O trains chugged up to Hyattsville, which stood five miles away in the opposite direction of Alexandria. From there, the trains went along newly laid tracks that skirted the boundary of the diamond shaped city. After passing by Bladensburg, the trains made a turn to the southwest, then went between the Anacostia River (then known as the Eastern Branch) and Uniontown, a suburb we know today as Anacostia. Before reaching the Potomac, the line turned to the south and headed for Marbury’s Point, which stood along the Potomac opposite Alexandria.
Albert J. Churella (The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917) describes the route this way:
… a roundabout, twelve-mile long line that sent the B&O trains looping in a huge slanted “U,” from the Washington station northeast through Bladensburg, and then south and southwest to the north bank of the Potomac River at Sheperd’s Landing (also known as Marbury Point), south of central Washington.
Of course the B&O still had to get across the river. Their engineers might have loved to have built a bridge but that part of the river needed to remain navigable.
Garrett went with the car float method. He knew it would be slower, but he also knew it had worked ten years earlier. During the Civil War, General Hermann Haupt, a logistical genius and a man Lincoln counted on to deliver materiel on time, led the United States Military Railroad troops from his Headquarters in Alexandria. Railroad cars were loaded at a wharf at the foot of Franklin Street, and towed southward by steam to Aquia Landing.
A historical marker at Ford’s Landing points out:
At the wharf, the train cars were transferred directly on to barges, made up of two canal boats lashed together, over which rails had been laid, and were pulled down the river to Aquia Creek where they could be transferred back to rail. The barge avoided the necessity of unloading the cars for the river portion and were forerunners of modern containerized freight.
John Browning, who wrote, “The History and Construction of the Alexandria Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad,” fills in some details about the wharf at Marbury’s Point. Extending out a distance of 1,400 feet, it was made of oak. The barges could carry two loaded freight cars. Peak service was five hauls a day.
Alexandria stood about 2,200 feet away. A straight shot over would have put the car trains on the north side of the city, about modern day Montgomery Street. But the terminus of the O&A and the wharf the city built for the car towing, was located south of the seaport at the foot of Wilkes Street.
The B&O called the line “the Alexandria Extension” or “the Alexandria Branch.” For a period of time, the Alexandria Gazette called it the “East Alexandria railroad.” In his magnum opus, “This Was Potomac River,” Frederick Tilp also referred to the line as the East Alexandria Railroad. He notes that “for a short time, the B&O shuttle had a beneficial effect on the Alexandria and Georgetown coal trade…”
The operation got underway in 1874. Despite the uniqueness of this line, the Alexandria Gazette did not give much attention to it. That was probably because the passenger service portion only lasted a year and rail customers preferred the Penn line’s quicker travel times.
There was a human interest story involving the transfer barge. The Washington Post covered it in 1896. General Oliver P. Gooding escaped St. Elizabeth Asylum and hopped a ride on the transfer barge to Alexandria. The police arrested him the next morning and returned him to St. Elizabeth’s.
In 1906, the B&O gained permission to share Long Bridge with the PRR. The old bridge had been demolished and replaced with a new, rail only, through-truss swing bridge in 1904.
As Eugene Wieser points out, the southern part of the Alexandria Extension Track was realigned to link the PRR trackage in Anacostia, into the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, through to SW DC, crossing the Potomac at the Long Bridge and on to Potomac Yard in Alexandria.
With the Alexandria connection cut off, the old East Alexandria Line from Marbury’s Point to Anacostia became known as the Sheperd's Branch. During World War II, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers build an “emergency bridge” extending from Marbury Point straight across to Alexandria, a spot between Montgomery and First Street. The bridge lasted only from 1942 to 1945 and was removed.
In the 1960s, the old B&O tracks provided service to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Bolling Air Force Base. The Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant currently occupies the site of Shepard’s Point. An historical marker near Barry Farms housing touches on the East Alexandria story. As covered by WashCycle, there are plans to retrofit parts off the rail line into a Shepard’s Branch bike trail.
There are plans for at least one historical marker, which will touch on community activities that took place at the west end of the park near Lee Street. Perhaps the city will erect another one by the water - titled “The East Alexandria Railroad.”
Note: I would like to thank Bernard Kempinski for his wonderful website “American Civil War in Miniature.” He told me the B&O's car float was likely different from the Haupt design. The cars were probably arranged longitudinally along the float as opposed to transverse. I could find no photos of the B&O's Alexandria line or the tugs or floats.