City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 5, 2011 3:40 PM
Discovering the Decades: 1900s
Points in Time
Commerce and Industry
Alexandria experienced astonishing growth as a manufacturing center from 1899 to 1915, leading every city in Virginia except Lynchburg in the increased production of goods. The value of the city's products nearly tripled between 1899 and 1909. The most important industries produced glass, fertilizer, beer and leather. There were 54 manufacturing establishments which employed 1,713 persons. In 1899 salaries paid to all persons employed in these industries amounted to $374,000, and the figure increased to $919,000 in 1909 [Alexandria Gazette 6/4/1912].
Central to this phenomenal growth were Alexandria's glass factories. Major production of glass began in the early 1890s by the Virginia Glass Company, located on the south side of the 1800 block of Duke Street in West End. A large percentage of the firm's business was the manufacture of bottles for the Portner brewery on St. Asaph Street. On February 18, 1905 tragedy befell the company when its plant was entirely destroyed by fire. In January 1901 German-American entrepreneurs and local glassblowers announced they would soon erect a new glass works on the river front along the old Alexandria canal locks on the 800 and 900 blocks of North Fairfax Street near Montgomery Street. Known as the Old Dominion Glass Company, it had scarcely been in operation a year when it too was ravaged by fire. Soon reconstructed, however, the plant manufactured an assortment of beer and soda bottles, flasks, and medicine and food bottles for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, McCormick and Company and others. The Belle Pre Bottle Company, situated on the west side of Henry Street between Madison and Montgomery Streets, was organized in 1902 by a group of Washington businessmen. It owned a patent on a type of milk bottle and was one of the largest producers of such bottles in the U.S. Beset by financial setbacks in 1912, Belle Pre declared bankruptcy and subsequently auctioned off its equipment. Finally, the Alexandria Glass Company, begun about 1900, was located on the northwest corner of Henry and Montgomery Streets. Purchased by the Old Dominion Glass Company in 1916, fire completely devastated the glass works despite the vigorous efforts of the firemen. As a result of this blaze, 175 men and boys lost their jobs, and company officials estimated the damage at $75,000 [Alexandria Gazette 2/8/1917].
Railroads had been a mainstay of Alexandria's economy since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Orange & Alexandria, the Alexandria & Washington, and the Alexandria Loudoun & Hampshire formed a transportation hub in town. Along with the Manassas Gap Railroad, these lines employed hundreds of laborers who worked tirelessly laying track, constructing depots, and toiling in the freight yards. "An extensive new facility known as Potomac Yard was opened on August 1, 1906, between the then-northern city limits of Alexandria and the Long Bridge. The original installation included roughly 450 acres, with 52 miles of track and a capacity for over 3,000 cars..." This facility would become the largest railroad classification yard on the east coast of the U.S. by World War II. New iron bridges were constructed over Braddock Road, King Street and Commonwealth Avenue in 1903-4. A new Union Station and a new freight station were opened at the head of King Street in 1905, uniting the passenger and freight facilities formerly dispersed among independent stations in town [Al Cox, "The Alexandria Union Station" in Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 1996].
There had been electric trolley service in Alexandria since 1892, and by 1906 the Washington, Alexandria and Mt. Vernon electric railroad had transported 1,743,734 passengers along their route with 92 daily trains daily. Travelers could also catch steamers to Norfolk and Baltimore while daily ferry service was available to Washington, D.C. These transportation developments reflected and encouraged a north and westward shift in population, as suburbanites found they could commute from Rosemont (platted 1906), Del Ray, Braddock Heights, and St. Elmo to Washington or the center of Alexandria, and as workmen settled in Del Ray near jobs in the train yards.
Politics and Government
From the mid 1870s until the present day, Alexandria's city government has been dominated by the Democratic party. The first decade of the twentieth century was certainly no exception. "The election [of George Simpson as mayor,] while it proceeded quietly has caused more interest than was generally the case... There is virtually no opposition to the head of the ticket and none whatever to the other candidates for city office. Simpson won by a landslide ..." Similarly, in 1904 the only action was in the Democratic primary. Simpson was defeated by German-American shoe manufacturer Frederick Paff, and the general election was again "devoid of animation and those conducting it had to kill time during the greater portion of the day.... The gentlemen nominated for Aldermen and Councilmen at the recent democratic primary election had no competition."
ArchitectureOne of Alexandria's stand-out structures of the first decade of the twentieth century is the 1909 Elks' Club at 318 Prince Street. It is a pretty standard brick example of the Beaux Arts style then popular for institutional buildings-with its clear tripartite organization of articulated base, columned "body," and prominent cornice. In addition to its classical flourishes, there are two elements which attract the eye. The second-story arch above the entry contains a full-size, half-ton bronze elk statue, with its head and antlers projecting just beyond the plane of the wall. It is a symbol, of course, of the fraternal organization once quartered here, the Alexandria lodge of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. Above it, on the parapet of the building, is a clock which eternally reads 11:00. "Many citizens have assumed it to be in disrepair... Upon close inspection, the clock shows no evidence of working parts." It appears to be symbolic of a traditional Elks 11 p.m. toast to "all brothers everywhere, land or sea, and a remembrance of absent brothers at that hour." [Marilyn Burke, "The Elks Club at 318 Prince Street" in the Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 1993]
Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.
Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.