Alexandria was chartered by the General Assembly in 1749, immediately after a charter for a parallel town at Dumfries was approved. Scottish merchants were the sparkplugs behind the creation of the two new communities; the tobacco warehouses already at those locations were magnets for customers.
Both port cities were given the same set of street names, but the merchants ultimately chose one city over the other. Dumfries faded as a commercial center, in part because its harbor silted in and ocean-going ships found it difficult to reach the Dumfries wharves for loading/unloading cargo. In contrast, the capacity to load ships at Alexandria was improved by filling in the shallow harbor and extending the wharves into deeper water. Two blocks of land have been added to the waterfront, extending today from the back of the Carlyle House to the boardwalk in front of the Torpedo Factory Art Gallery
The relationship between Alexandria and the rest of Virginia has been complex at times. Alexandria was once part of Lord Fairfax's "proprietary" land grant. Theoretically, after the initial grant to King Charles II's friends, the area was outside the control of colonial officials to issue land grants.
Alexandria was transferred to the District of Columbia when the national capital moved from Philadelphia to the Potomac River in 1800. George Washington had maneuvered to have the developed portion of the Potomac waterfront in Virginia included within the boundaries of the new national capital, under the terms of the Residence Act. The southern tip of the District boundary was defined by a stone placed at Jones Point.
Jones Point, southern tip of DC (before land upstream was filled in for Virginia Shipbuilding yard in WWI)
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia, 1798 / engrav'd by T. Clarke, New York.
Jones Point, 1878
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington, including the counties of Fairfax and Alexandria, Virginia / compiled and published from actual surveys by G.M. Hopkins
Washington may have expected Alexandria to benefit from an expected economic boom, as people moved to the new capital. However, public buildings such as the Capitol and White House were located north of the Potomac River. Alexandria County suffered, because neither Virginia nor DC would use public funds to develop the area.
In 1856, after the retrocession of the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia, the Federal government built a lighthouse at Jones Point. The lighthouse keepers cabin was located adjacent to the stone marking the southern tip of the District, and both structures are still there today.
One economic activity in Alexandria was the slave trade, including the Franklin & Armfield business located at 1315 Duke Street. In the Compromise of 1850, the US Congress banned slavery in the District of Columbia, which was under Federal control. Alexandria and Virginia officials recognized the handwriting on the wall. They agitated in the 1840's to return or "retrocede" the Virginia portion of the District (south of the Potomac River) to Virginia. After a vote on the issue in Alexandria, the territory was returned back to Virginia in 1847.
Had the retrocession not occurred prior to the banning of slavery in DC in 1850, the Federal Distict could have become a flash point for Virginia slaves trying to escape into the "free" North. Retrocession placed a psychological and physical barrier, the Potomac River, between free vs. slave territory.
Few Virginians realize that Alexandria was the state capital between 1863-65, at least according to the Federal government based in Washington, DC. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Richmond became the capital of the Confederate Virginia - but the northern states remaining in the Union did not recognize the new Confederate government.
Instead, a competing "Restored Government of Virginia" was created by the Union sympathizers in Virginia in 1861. Since the old location in Richmond was occupied by Confederate sympathizers, the Union side established the state capital of its version of Virginia in Wheeling, on the Ohio River. That location was far from the slave-owning Tidewater counties, safe from Confederate attack, and easily accessible from the northern states.
There was just one problem: West Virginia became a separate state in 1863, and Wheeling became the capital of the new state. Forty-eight counties now belonged to West Virginia, not Virginia. The governor of the Union version of Virginia, Francis Pierpont, had to leave Wheeling and move back to what remained of Virginia.
After the creation of West Virginia in 1863, there were few locations available within the now-altered boundaries of Virginia for Union sympathizers to locate a capital of the Restored Government of Virginia. The Civil War was still being hotly contested, and it was not clear which side would win.
Not all of the remaining territory of Virginia was controlled by Confederates, however. The Emancipation Proclamation listed the areas under Federal control, and thus "safe" for locating the Union version of Virginia state government until the Federal army captured Richmond.
In Virginia, those Federally-controlled areas included the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, plus the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Eastern Shore was too far away for any government center. Hampton Roads was under military control of the Army, and the control of the military leaders would have limited the authority of any civilian state officials in the Norfolk area.
So Governor Pierpont chose to locate the Restored Government in Alexandria, in the shadow of his political sponsors in Washington and in a community protected by a ring of Federal Army forts. Alexandria served as the state capital, and Pierpont as the state governor, until the Union Army finally captured Richmond in April, 1865. At that point, the state government moved south again to the traditional capital, with the capitol building and the Governor's Mansion.
Alexandria finally boomed again after World War I. As the Federal government expanded during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, demand for housing increased. The Alexandria Water Company built Lake Barcroft to supply drinking water to the city in 1915, then switched to the new and larger Occoquan Reservoir in 1950.
Gentrification finally converted most low-cost housing into expensive townhomes/condos between 1970 and 2000.1
|Place Name||State||Homeownership Rate (percent)||Owner-Occupied Housing Units||Renter-Occupied Housing Units||Total Occupied Housing Units||Population:
April 1, 2000
|Newport News city||VA||55.4||52.0||50.0||52.4||21,884||26,682||31,993||36,513||17,653||24,632||31,959||33,173||39,537||51,314||63,952||69,686||180,150|
|Virginia Beach city||VA||68.4||64.2||62.5||65.6||30,865||54,693||84,723||101,308||14,264||30,462||50,843||53,147||45,129||85,155||135,566||154,455||425,257|
To move into Alexandria today, you have to be prepared to pay dearly for property. As real estate agents constantly repeat, value of property is determined by three things - location, location, and location. What makes Alexandria so attractive? It's not a center of manufacturing. It's not a high-tech community like Silicon Valley. It's a small city... but it's adjacent to Washington DC. according to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Alexandria "is ranked 4th in the nation behind Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago in the number of associations headquartered here."2
Alexandria offers a convenient commute to the Federal agencies via the George Washington Memorial Parkway or the Metro (both constructed primarily by funding from the Federal government). The taxpayers and business leaders in Alexandria could never have invested the dollars necessary to build the Metro - but the leaders of Alexandria have made sure it had excellent transportation facilities since the city was started in 1749.
1. Fannie Mae Foundation (site no longer available)
2. "About Alexandria," Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, http://www.alexecon.org/about-alexandria.html (last checked September 17, 2010)