The Alexanders of Alexandria

Besides its name-sharing with a certain cultural center on the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria (Virginia) probably gets its name from Scottish immigrant John Alexander, who purchased 6,000 acres of land in 1669 (for "6 hogheads of tobacco," about 3 tons). 

The family holdings stretched along the Potomac, from south of current-day Alexandria to near the current Arlington-McLean border near Chain Bridge.  The family divided it through the years through marriage, inheritance, and the like. This 1741 map (reproduced on a City of Alexandria sign, original in the Library of Congress) shows land parcels owned by the Alexanders and Dades (Alexander descendants) almost 100 years after that original purchase.


According to the John Alexander chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Alexandria derives its name from the family. The first John Alexander's grandsons owned property that others eyed to create a new town and port--what we now know as Old Town. (A tobacco inspection warehouse operated at the foot of Oronoco Street.) But the men profitably rented out their land and were not thrilled about giving up the revenue. Naming the new town after them was an inducement.

The Office of Historic Alexandria considers this probable, but not definitive: "No evidence has been unearthed which points directly to the rationale for naming our city 'Alexandria.' It surely more than coincidence, however, that much of the land upon which the town was founded was then still in the hands of the Alexander family." As for the name-share with Alexandria, Egypt, "this could not be unintentional, coincidental or unappreciated." In fact, it was a bold statement of lofty cultural ambitions, wouldn't you say?

The land depicted on the map above remained in agriculture until the 1900s, when it became "Potomac Yard," a major freight railroad hub. Trains came into the Yard, where between 1,000 and 1,500 workers, 24/7 and every day of the year, combined the cars into different configurations depending on their cargo and final destination. An ice facility supplied 700 tons of ice a day in the era before refrigerated cars.

As transportation patterns change, the area transformed again. When I first moved to Alexandria in the mid-1980s, the heyday of Potomac Yards had passed, and it was a bunch of tracks and vacant land along Route 1.  A "big box" shopping center opened in the 1990s, notable then for having the closest Target to the District of Columbia. Nowadays, trendy housing--and a future Metro stop--has created the next wave of new people and uses. 

Across from apartments and condos, the Potomac Yard Trail is now a place to walk, run, or bike, with playgrounds, parcourse stops, and game courts along the path.

The occasional train still makes its way north or south, with new housing on either side of the tracks.




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