The impacts of transportation networks on early urban development are reflected in the growth of Alexandria. Alexandria merchants financed a transportation network into the backcountry or "hinterland," the farmland west of the Fall Line. Before the Civil War, the city connected its wharves and its stores to farms in the Piedmont - and then to the Shenandoah Valley.
Investments in turnpikes, harbor improvements, canals, and railroads made Alexandria into an economically successful city. Despite the transfer of government responsibility for the city to the District of Columbia and back again, Alexandria was able to outcompete Georgetown across the river as well as Occoquan, Dumfries, and Fredericksburg in Virginia.
Alexandria expanded its wharf space from the natural riverbank deeper into the Potomac River, in part by sinking old ships and dumping dirt between piers that had extended out into the river - and in 2016, one of those ships was uncovered during excavation for the new Indigo Hotel
Source: City of Alexandria, Archaeological Discoveries on the Waterfront: 220 S. Union Street
Alexandria and Dumfries were chartered on the same day in 1749. Both were sponsored by Scottish merchants with comparable economic interests. The towns even have the same pattern of colonial street names - Prince, Duke, etc. Within 25 years after the initial founding date, Alexandria was thriving while Dumfries had already faded into obscurity.
Dumfries failed to build roads, canals, or railroads to facilitate farmers bringing crops to their docks. Dumfries also failed to prevent soil erosion from silting up the harbor, which is traditionally cited as the reason for "Virginia's oldest continuously chartered town" from failing to grow.
Dumfries business largely ceased when the port was filled with sediment. Efforts to dredge a channel or move downstream failed, and the "Newport" community of townhomes on the south bank is the only modern evidence of the attempt. Dumfries literally became a backwater, and the shoreline migrated east as silt filled the old harbor. The original wharves of Dumfries are now located between the two halves of US 1 running through town.
banknotes honored Alexandria's tobacco shipping heritage
Source: City of Alexandria, A Brief History of Alexandria
Alexandria merchants linked their port first with farmers in western Fairfax and Loudoun counties. In the 1790's, the city initiated and financed the Little River Turnpike to Aldie, where the Little River cuts through the Blue Ridge. From Alexandria to Jermantown (near the Fairfax campus of George Mason University), the route of the turnpike follows modern US 236. From Jermantown modern US 50 traces the historic turnpike route to Aldie, at the base of the Blue Ridge. The Ashby Gap Turnpike Company later extended the connection west to the crest of the Blue Ridge.
The Little River Turnpike was the first successful turnpike in the South. The Philadelphia-Lancaster turnpike, drawing the trade of farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia and away from Baltimore, was the first successful toll road in North America.
Even after paying the toll, farmers throughout western Fairfax and Loudoun counties who used Little River Turnpike could make a greater profit. The road reduced the time required to transport wheat and other bulky items to the port, where competition was greater. Ships from Alexandria could carry farm products to multiple markets, including Europe. Prices for Piedmont farmers were higher, while Alexandria merchants benefited from increased economic activity in their city.
Alexandria's next target was the agricultural trade from Prince William, Fauquier, Culpeper, and Orange counties. City leaders initiated and, with some state funding, built the Warrenton-Alexandria turnpike from the Little River Turnpike at Jermantown to Warrenton in Fauquier County. The Stone Bridge over Bull Run and the Stone House on Manassas Battlefield were constructed to facilitate the trade between Alexandria and more farmers between Bull Run and the Rappahannock River.
Today that turnpike is US 29. On the old maps of Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax County, it is often referenced as the "Warrenton Turnpike." In Fauquier County, it was often described as the "Alexandria Turnpike." Local residents on one end of the road referred to the turnpike based on the destination at the other end.
Alexandria merchants were part of the Patowmack Canal and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal initiatives. The C&O Canal originally ended in the competitive rival town of Georgetown, but Alexandria arranged for an extension to draw canal boats to the deeper water port at Alexandria. The Alexandria Canal crossed the Potomac River on Aqueduct Bridge, and allowed boats to go downstream while avoiding the risks of flooding, ice, and debris in the Potomac River.
Georgetown merchants might get first crack at the trade coming down the canal, and Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast traffic relying upon shallow water ships might stop just at Georgetown - but Alexandria was an attractive destination to those boats engaged in international trade to the Caribbean and Europe, where ships required a deepwater channel not available at Georgetown.
One pier of the old Aqueduct Bridge, on the Georgetown side next to Key Bridge, is still visible. One of the tidewater locks in Alexandria, where the C&O canal packet boats were raised or lowered into the Potomac River, has been reconstructed as an amenity for modern office buildings.
When Alexandria was included within the boundaries of the District of Columbia in 1800-1846, there was no reason for Virginia politicians to support the economic growth of the city. Board of Public Works funding was restricted to projects within the boundaries of the state of Virginia, and Alexandria was not part of Virginia for nearly 50 years.
Almost as soon as Alexandria was "revested" back to Virginia in 1847, the General Assembly chartered the Orange and Alexandria (O&A) Railroad. The O&A Railroad stretched southwest from the port city through the Piedmont, attracting the farm trade more effectively than the Warrenton Turnpike.
With the O&A Railroad, Alexandria out-competed Fredericksburg's merchants. Fredericksburg tried to attract trade from the Piedmont farms by building a canal up the Rappahannock River, bypassing various rapids and allowing reliable transportation despite high/low water levels. However, the canal arrived after the railroad. By the time the Rappahannock Canal connected the Fall Line at Fredericksburg to Kellys Ford (near present-day Remington in Fauquier County), farmers in Orange, Culpeper, and Fauquier counties were already accustomed to shipping via the O&A Railroad to Alexandria.
In the "first to market" competition, Alexandria won. Fredericksburg did not become the preferred business center of the Piedmont, even where it was physically closer, because farmers in the Rappahannock River Valley grew accustomed to shipping goods via roads and railroads to Alexandria.
Fredericksburg was linked to the Potomac River and to Richmond by one of the first railroads in the state, but did not build a line west to Orange/Culpeper counties before the Civil War. Some grading was completed on the route of the planned Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, but it was an "unfinished railroad" during the war.
By the time Fredericksburg constructed the narrow-gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont (PF&P) in the 1870's, the economy of the Piedmont was tied tightly to Alexandria. The derogatory term "Poor Folks & Preachers Railroad" indicates that the PF&P was never a major freight route.1
Alexandria was not satisfied with just the trade from the Piedmont. The city's ambitions extended further west to the Shenandoah Valley and beyond.
A charter for the Manassas Gap Railroad authorized an independent line to run from Mount Jackson to Alexandria, with a branch reaching into southern Loudoun County between the Blue Ridge and the Potomac River.
After the recession known as the Panic of 1857, construction of the Manassas Gap railroad was truncated. The independent line was connected to the O&A at a location named Manassas Junction, a name soon shortened to just "Manassas," and the branch into Loudoun County was never built.
The Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire railroad (AL&H) was expected to bring coal traffic from Hampshire County (now in West Virginia) to Alexandria, in addition to the farm trade from the Winchester area. The last part of the AL&H route was abandoned in the 1960's after construction of Dulles Airport, and the route is now the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) bike path. The AL&H was never built across the physical barrier of the Blue Ridge beyond Bluemont, and the modern bike trail stops in Purcellville.
Though the Manassas Gap and AL&H railroads were not completed as planned, they demonstrate how Alexandria competed with Fredericksburg, the District of Columbia, and even Baltimore by building a better transportation system. Unlike Dumfries and Fredericksburg, Alexandria connected its international port with the "hinterland," the surrounding region capable of supplying goods and purchasing items from the central city.
Alexandria no longer serves now as a major port handling shipments inland to the western frontier; just tourist boats dock at its wharf today. The Alexandria merchants still rely upon "internal improvements" to connect Northern Virginia to external factories and markets, but many goods arrive in town on trucks that use interstate highways.
When the Washington Post started shipping newsprint by rail instead of ship to its Robinson Terminal several years ago, Alexandria lost its last major freight operation. The coal-fired power plant generating electricity in Alexandria was supplied by train until the facility, known originally as the Potomac River Generating Station, was closed by GenOn Energy in 2012.
Two major railroads (the modern CSX) and the modern Norfolk Southern (incorporating the historic Orange and Alexandria and Manassas Gap railroads) connect the Ohio River valley with various cities on the Eastern seaboard. Those railroads deliver goods from the interior of North America to ocean-going ships at the ports of New York/New Jersey, Baltimore, Newport News, and Norfolk - but not Alexandria. The city is no longer dependent upon railroads, turnpikes, or canals to transport raw materials to urban factories or to ship manufactured products to rural customers.
Today, Alexandria's transportation network is designed to facilitate moving passengers by car and by three rail systems. Amtrak provides long-distance travel, Virginia Railway Express services commuters from Northern Virginia, and Metrorail provides local service.
1. "Orange to Fredericksburg," in Abandoned Rails of Virginia, http://www.abandonedrails.com/Orange_to_Fredericksburg (last checked September 17, 2010)