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City’s bullish years reflected in silver

December 22, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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A creamer made for the James Keith family by Adam Lynn, ca. 17951800. Engraved on the creamer is the Keith crest (a stag's head) and coat of arms. Lent by Ruth and Richard Tousey to the Lyceum. Photo Courtesy of the The Lyceum Company.
Thinking of what the new year will bring and how to make your dreams come true? There have been many dreamers who have helped shape Alexandria over the years. Their visions of trade, community, business, personal freedom, spirituality and homelife have all shaped Alexandria into the place we know to today.

Often these people may be lost to the collective memory of the town. This is the case for the wealthy that dined at Mount Vernon with George Washington as well as the African Americans who established the first black churches. Their names may be written in historical studies, but their dreams and actions are forgotten for the most part in the town we experience today.

Did you ever wonder why Franklin Street and Washington Streets with their 100 foot widths are larger than all the others in Old Town with 66 foot widths? These streets which shape our urban landscape, are virtually all that is left of the dream shared by James Keith, John Harper, Charles Simms, and Levin Powell 210 years ago. Archaeological investigation at the Ford's Landing site by Engineering Science, Inc. for the Cook Inlet Region of Virginia discovered the remains of their dream.

By 1785, the four men were engaged in constructing a new wharf at the foot of Franklin Street. The land speculation dream consisted of developing two wide streets and at their intersection a market house. The city limits had just been extended in 1782, and 100 lots were auctioned in 1785 to encourage investment.

Keith was mayor of the town in 1784 and served as president of both the Patowmack Canal Company and the Little River Turnpike Company. His business enterprises were geared toward expanding Alexandria's trade by increasing access of western products to the town.

Fortunately, the silver exhibit at the Lyceum through January has two objects which once belonged to the James Keith family. Both a creamer made by Adam Lynn and a spoon by John Gaither with the Keith crest and coat of arms are on view. A stag's head was engraved by both silversmiths over the coat of arms.

Catherine Hollan, curator of the exhibit and catalogue author, places the date of the creamer between 1795 and 1800. These would have been prosperous years in Alexandria and when Keith's dreams probably were burning brightly. Subscription books were opened to the Little River Turnpike in 1803, and three years later the road extended from Duke Street to the Little River in Aldie.' According to Janice Artemel, the new turnpike featured an artificial bed of broken stone rather than the normal muddy road.

More about Keith's Wharf and his dream for a southern market center in Alexandria next. Holiday guests will enjoy the silver exhibit at the Lyceum, 201 South Washington Street. The catalogue available at the Lyceum Shop is a great last minute gift.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.