Sumptuous homes sat above tunnel
November 2. 1995
By Pamela Cressey
A contemporary U.S. Geological Survey map still designates Shepherds Landing, where the ferry embarked with rail cars moving between Maryland and Virginia, via the Wilkes Street Tunnel.
The last whistle blew on the train going through the Wilkes Street Tunnel in 1975. My neighborhood for my years, Mr. Lyn Strickland, would speak fondly to me about his days as conductor on this train which continued down to Orange, Virginia. I loved his stories, and I loved walking to the tunnel and recreating the scene in my mind. Was it just romanticism that made this picture seem wonderful, or was it really just noisy and dirty having the tunnel and whole town occupied by trains?
I know from my own experience growing up a few blocks from train yards in my hometown, that the rail sounds gave me a sense of security as a child. But what was it like living right on top of the tunnel and along Wilkes Street? I have heard many native Alexandrians refer to this area as "Tunnel Town." The South Royal Street corridor was an African American neighborhood called "Haytie." There were many small wood frame homes by the railroad tracks, and some survive along Wilkes Street today.
One of the earliest references to Tunnel Town that I am aware of comes from the Alexandria Gazette September 28, 1860 as quoted in T. Michael Miller's book, Pen Portraits. There was a "Torch-Light Procession, Illumination, and Monster Meeting" supporting the candidates Bell and Everett in the national election. Men marched, bands played, "then followed the Tunneltown boys with big bells and little bells, with transparencies, and loud huzzas for the Constitution and the Union..."
There were also large brick homes built by the Alexandria elite on top of the South Lee and Fairfax street bluffs. Given the dates of the houses, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (O&ARR) would have had to excavate the tunnel through the bluff from Royal to Union streets under these homes. I have often wondered about the technology used in this excavation. Were the occupants of the bluff worried about their homes collapsing during the excavation?
The Slacum/Burke house at 208/210 Wilkes was one of the finest in town. It was built originally by George Slacum, a merchant, and later occupied by his granddaughter Julia and husband J.W. Burke, one of the founders of Burke and Herbert Bank. The house stayed in the Burke family under 1945. The property was extensive with a dry well in the cellar for refrigeration, smoke and carriages houses, stable and garden with walnut, plum and peach trees. In 1863, the house was referred to as an "old Mansion" and Slacum's daughters were considered "stars of the first magnitude."
When the O&ARR merged in 1872, a new railroad was formed, the Virginia Midland. Three years later it began a railroad car ferry from Wilkes Street across the Potomac to Shepherds Landing, now the White Plains Sewage Treatment Plant. By the 1890s the ferry connected the Midland service with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad using a long wharf extending into the Potomac from Shepherds. The ferry operated until 1906.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.