City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 6, 2010 8:58 PM
Oldest bridge shows clues of rail growth
October 5, 1995
So began our quest to understand the development of the oldest surviving bridge in Alexandria, and thus, the expansion of the area's complicated railroad system. This two-faced bridge gave us material clues which prompted us to ask questions from historical documents and maps.
Steve and I wanted to measure both parts of the bridge. Since there is nothing visible from the top of the bridge which distinguishes the two sides, we walked under the bridge. We realized that the original south face of the grey bridge had been covered over by the newer red stone wall. Underneath the wall we could see this joint. The soffit of the brick arch vault was punctuated by the grey stone voussoirs, even though the brick arch looked similar in both parts. We were able to measure the width of each bridge section based upon this joint.
The grey bridge is slightly more than 28 feet wide, while the red stone section is 16 feet. We know that only one track ran over the bridge when it was constructed by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in 1856. This one track continued even until the end of the Civil War, based upon a United States Military Railroad map dating to 1865.
When was the red stone 16 foot section added to the south? Steve and I first developed the theory that the expansion occurred at the same time as the red sandstone wall was erected around the Alexandria National Cemetery. Our idea was based upon the similarity of the stone and masonry between the red stone bridge and the cemetery wall, and their close proximity at the eastern end of the bridge. We turned to historic maps, photographs and documents to determine the construction date.
In a 1862-1865 Andrew Russell Civil War photo, the south face of the grey bridge can be seen; thus substantiating that it was constructed earlier than the southern red span. The photo also shows a picket fence around the cemetery. The 1877 Hopkins Map documents a second track had been constructed by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, organized in 1870 and opened in 1872. The Alexandria Gazette reported on January 1, 1871 that the "work of enclosing the cemetery. . . with a handsome and substantial stone wall is progressing rapidly. So we thought that the red stone addition must have occurred in 1871. Next week I will discuss an alternative date proposed by James Massey and Jere Gibber from their additional research.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.