Visionaries built Alexandria
May 19, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
The transformation of Alexandria from a natural landscape into an urban grid concept on the 1798 George Gilpin map.
A vision is a distinct and vivid mental concept, something intangible, not present to the eye. The word has been associated with dreams, supernatural experiences and mysticism since the 14th century. A visionary can also be a person with great foresight; an individual who can transform personal mental images into words that evoke similar visions in others. Often these visions of inner, self direction stir groups into action. Such a process has long been used by religious leaders. More recently, transformational writers such as Wayne Dwyer, have turned this spiritual concept into a secular technology: "You see it when you believe it." The mental picture or intuitive sense precedes the reality.
I believe that people's visions have always guided the use of the land we now call Alexandria. Early Native American hunters and gatherers moved through our alluvial coastal plain joining the Potomac River and the western uplands near highway 395. Their concept of this land spanning back 10,000 years from today, truly was distinct from the early Europeans' vision. According to traveler accounts in the 1600s, the area was rich in native foods: "strawberries, raspires, fallen mulberrie vines, acchorns, walnutts, saxafras." Native Americans had changed little of the landscape: "All was high woods except where the Indians have cleared for corne. It abounds with delicate springs which are our best drinke."
With the establishment of European cultivation and tobacco warehouses in the early 1700s, Alexandria's landscape would drastically shift to reflect their Old World concepts. The English and Scottish sought "well-built towns, for convenient Ports and Markets." It took a few years for these visions to become reality. In 1744, five years before Alexandria was established, the Old Town area contained a few warehouses, Philip Alexander's quarters, John West's home, corn and tobacco fields, woods and perhaps a few orchards. Another settlement, called Cameron, occupied land near Telegraph Road which was the last navigable section of Cameron Run.
But the natural landscape was viewed with an eye for what it could become to fit the European vision. George Washington's map drawn the year before sale of the first lots stated: "Note that in the bank fine Cellars may be cut from thence Wharfs may be extended on the Flats with (out) any difficulty and Ware Houses built thereon as in Philadelphia." The 1749 Act for erecting the town carved the landscape into half acre lots joined in fours to make 2 acre blocks separated in a grid pattern by streets. Special mention was made that land be set aside for a Market Place and Public Landing.
While the initial cutting away of the banks and wharf building began immediately, it took a few decades for the town to take the form envisioned by the early inhabitants. By 1804, Baron Alexander von Humboldt remarked on Alexandria's transformation from a "few Scattered buildings, and chiefly along the River and which was bordered by a high bank, said bank is now cut away to make long wharfs, and the streets here are paved ... the Houses, mostly of brick, and many of them a good stile of architecture."
Over the generations, other visionaries fashioned Alexandria into their dream. A canal and railroad were built. The town grew with new spaces called garden apartments, cul de sacs, ramblers, high rises and parks. The vision of public welfare expanded to include education, library, health, fire and police service for all. We are now embarked upon developing a community vision from many individual backgrounds and needs for the 21st century. How will Alexandria look and what will its spirit be after these visions are fulfilled?
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.