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The Early Years of Alexandria, Virginia

The following post is by Ed Redmond, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

The city of Alexandria, Virginia traces its roots to the establishment of a tobacco inspection warehouse at the foot of current day Oronoco Street in Old Town Alexandria. The purpose of the inspection warehouse was to provide quality control over tobacco exported from the colonies to England. Instrumental to the early mapping of Alexandria was none other than George Washington, who was an accomplished surveyor and cartographer. In 1748, at the age of just 16, the future president helped map the outline of the new city to be created around the tobacco inspection warehouse.

Plat of the land where on stands the town of Alexandria. George Washington, 1748. Manuscript Map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Plat of the land where on stands the town of Alexandria. George Washington, 1748. Manuscript Map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

At the town’s founding in July 1749, the town held its first sale of lots and George Washington created a second map showing the street grid in the new city. Washington also listed on the right side of the map the 58 town lots sold between July 13th and September 20th, 1749, providing the proprietors’ names and the prices paid in Spanish gold coins called “pistoles.”

A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. George Washington, 1749. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. George Washington, 1749. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

By 1798, as shown on George Gilpin’s Plan of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia, Alexandria’s waterfront had expanded significantly due to dredging of the Potomac River and using the fill to create new land.

Plan of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia. George Gilpin, 1798. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Plan of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia. George Gilpin, 1798. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

How did the city transform from a tiny settlement into a busy port town? One of the major reasons was the establishment of the Alexandria Canal Company in 1838. The Alexandria Canal formed the southern half of a canal system that linked Cumberland, Maryland with Alexandria, which was then part of the District of Columbia. The canal system allowed barges to travel via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Cumberland to Georgetown, in D.C., and then cross the Potomac River at Georgetown by means of the Potomac Aqueduct. This aqueduct enabled the boats to cross the Potomac River without descending to the river level, allowing barges to continue the journey without unloading their cargo. The Alexandria Canal then ran south from Rosslyn on the western bank of the Potomac, past the current site of the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport, and on to the north end of Alexandria.

Chart of the head of navigation of the Potomac River shewing the route of the Alexandria Canal. Alexandria Canal Company, 1841. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Chart of the head of navigation of the Potomac River shewing the route of the Alexandria Canal. Alexandria Canal Company, 1841. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The completion of the canal allowed business to flourish in Alexandria in the mid- to late-19th century. The canal was abandoned in 1886, later becoming the location of an electric trolley line. Though no longer the busy colonial port of its past, Alexandria’s proximity to the nation’s capital has allowed it to continue to flourish and grow today.

Birds eye view of Alexandria, Va. Charles Magnus, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Birds eye view of Alexandria, Va. Charles Magnus, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Houses of Government

This is a post by Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 225 years ago this month, on October 13, 1792, the cornerstone of what we now call the White House was laid. The term “White House,” although not its official name, was commonly used to refer to the […]

Modest Monuments: The District of Columbia Boundary Stones

The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots. Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries […]

Maps for the Masses: Geography in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

It is almost a cliché to say, but today, in 2016, maps are everywhere. The barriers to geographic information have come down so that anyone with internet access or a smart phone can see maps of the world in incredible detail. But the wide availability of maps to people of all walks of life is […]

History of Cuba Through Maps Lecture at Library of Congress May 13

Today’s post is from Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography & Map Division. Architect and urban planner Julio César Pérez-Hernández will discuss the history of Cuba through cartography on May 13, 2016 at the Library of Congress. “Islands in the Stream: Cuban Maps from the Past to the Future” will take place from […]

Anna Beek and the War of the Spanish Succession

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts. Anna van Westerstee Beek (also spelled “Beeck”) was born in 1657 in The Hague, a coastal city in the […]

Putting Boston on the Map: Land Reclamation and the Growth of a City

Today’s guest post is from Tim St. Onge, a cartographer in the Geography and Map Division. Tim holds an undergraduate degree in Geography from the University of Mary Washington and a Master’s degree in Geographic Information Science from Clark University. The Back Bay neighborhood of Boston is home to some of the city’s most famous […]