West End retains vestiges of early mills and commerce
May 26, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
The long mill race diverted water from Holmes Run through Cloud's (Triadelphia) Mill in this 1879 Hopkins Map. The road to the south was Little River Turnpike (Duke Street).
The West End is a name that does not conjure up images of history, such as those evoked by the "east end" of Alexandria, called Old Town. In fact, the name "West End" has been in use far longer than the more recent Old Town term delineating the historic urban core. West End Village was originally just over the western boundary of 18th century Alexandria. It may have been the first planned subdivision at the periphery of town, developed by the West family.
Over the years, Alexandria's West End has just kept moving west as the formal boundaries of the city have grown. Today it is an area characterized by major transportation arteries such as Duke, Van Dorn, Seminary and Braddock streets. The West End also has more newer architecture types, including high rise condominiums, townhouse complexes and shopping centers than neighborhoods to its east.
But how can you find history among all these high rises and new townhouse developments? As one new townhouse buyer said when she called our office, "I moved here because Alexandria has a historic character even though I live in a new townhouse. I can't see the history here any more, but I am sure that knowing about what was once here will enrich my experience of being an Alexandrian."
The history in the West End might take a little more time to locate, but there are still preserved sites and fascinating archaeology. West End sites just have a different character than those in the urban core. You have to look for the vestiges of landforms, waterways, roads, isolated sites, and small villages in order to piece together this rural hinterland.
One of the first West End sites which came to my attention was Cloud's Mill Race. By fitting together 19th century maps, 20th century aerial photographs, historic documents, and field survey we have identified two surviving segments of the mill race. The mill, often called Triadelphia, was one of several grist mills operating in Alexandria's West End. Jean Biero has researched the mill for years, and her study has been recently published.
While we usually think of Alexandria as a tobacco trading port, wheat became a major crop by the end of the 18th century. Neighborhood mills, like Cloud's Mill ground the wheat into flour. Placed into barrels, the flour was transported east along Little River Turnpike (Duke Street) to warehouses lining Alexandria's wharves. In just one year, from June 1816 to 1817, Alexandria flour inspectors reported reviewing 209,000 barrels as they went out of the port. Milling shifted westward, and by the 1880s few mills were operating near Alexandria.
Drive down Paxton Road today between Holmes Run Parkway and Duke Street and you will see one of the last remnants of the mill race which diverted water for about two miles from Holmes Run. The mill once was located very near where Holmes Run and Duke Street intersect (just west of the Foxchase Center). Jean Biero references Dorothy Wood Wolf's memories of living in the miller's house in 1921. The mill was a red frame structure near the muddy 2 lane road which was then Duke Street.
The townhouse development near the mill race preserved this small segment, tucked between buildings. Two new streets have been named for Cloud's Mill to help keep our sense of the past. Walk down Holmes Run, smell the jasmine and imagine the area during the Civil War. An 1861 Confederate scouting report described the Union forces' occupation of the mill: A fortification at Clouds Mills of flour barrells with sand and stone logs in them . . . a force of 3 to 400 at Cloud Mills all together 30 to 40 in a house just below clearlands right on the pike and the run 3 to 4 pickets beyond that . . . They lie about in the woods all night about 4 or 500 around these...."
Jean Biero's Cloud's Mill history is available at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Torpedo Factory Art Center, 703-838-4399.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.