City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 6, 2010 9:32 PM
Unsuccessful wharf was nevertheless significant
January 19, 1995
How were wharves made in the 18th century so that streets and buildings could be constructed upon them? A fascinating archaeological report produced by Cook Inlet Region of Virginia by Engineering Science supplies many answers. The archaeological investigation conducted prior to the Ford’s Landing development discovered the historic Keith’s Wharf covered by 19th and 20th century building foundation and soil.
A wharf’s purpose was to provide a mooring location for boats and ships while moving cargo and passengers. Wharves actually extended the shoreline and provided new waterfront land for buildings. They usually had two sections: a wooden retaining framework; and fill material inside the frame. More than mere piers, historic wharves were major structures capable of sustaining the weight of warehouses, manufacturing and homes.
There were two kinds of wharves, with different orientations to the shoreline. If a wharf was parallel to the shore, it was called “Marginal;” a wharf built at a right angle to the shore was “projecting.” Keith’s Wharf was of the marginal type, as it ran parallel to Union Street for about 400 feet. James Keith and others, in a petition to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785, said that they had “extended four hundred feet forward into the river and are now engaged in filled it with earth at a very heavy expense.”
They intended to add “commodious piers and docks for the reception of shipping” when the wharf was completed. In those days a pier was simply a wooden floor jutting into deep water, supported by pilings. Piers were used to moor ships, but not to hold buildings. Docks were slips – bodies of water in which ships floated while moored.
Keith’s Wharf was constructed using a bulkhead technology. Several large timbers, ranging from 10 to 17 inches in diameter, were stacked lengthwise to form a wall around the edges of wharf. Back braces, or struts, anchored in the fill, provided stabilization to the timber wall. Eighty-eight feet of the 18th-century wharf were found in the archaeological excavation, one of the most significant findings on any American waterfront.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.