History and Archaeology at Potomac Yard
History and Archaeology of Potomac Yard
Alexandria Archaeology has been interested in the history and landscape of Potomac Yard for decades. Since the 1980s, archaeological firms have conducted historical studies and investigations of various segments of the area either for developers as part of the City’s archaeological code or for planning efforts. A vast amount of information has been acquired on the history, prehistoric and historic landscapes, and architecture of the area.
The History of Potomac Yard: A Transportation Corridor through Time, by Francine Bromberg, Alexandria Archaeology.
What is Potomac Yard?
Potomac Yard was a rail classification yard that facilitated distribution of freight between northbound and southbound trains fro six railroad companies. Most trains entering the Yard were composed of rail cars bound for different destinations. One train entering the Yard might contain cars bound for five or more cities. These trains were "switched" (or dismantled) and reassembled into different trains where all the cars were headed to the same location, or at least a destination along the same route.
Potomac Yard, located along Route one north of Slater's Lane, was in operation from 1906 to 1982. The area now houses homes and businesses.
Read the the Heritage Trail signs for more about the rail yard and how it operated, and about life in the area before Potomac Yard.
Heritage Trail Signs
These seven Heritage Trail signs were placed at Potomac Yard in 2012. The signs are located in the new Potomac Yard Park, along Potomac Avenue.
- Virginia's First Highways. Native Americans in the area of Potomac Yard.
- The Alexanders and Agriculture. The first European land owners.
- Building Potomac Yard. The Yard opened in 1906.
- The People of Potomac Yard. As many as 1,500 employees worked at Potomac Yard.
- Crossroads of Transportation. Roads, passenger rail and the Canal also crossed through the Yard.
- The Rail Yard Hump. The Hump played a crucial role in switching and classifying the freight cars.
- Potomac Yard in Transition. The Yard closed in 1982, and is the site of ongoing development of homes and businesses along Route 1 in Alexandria and Arlington.
Since the 1980s, archaeological firms have conducted historical studies and investigations of various segments of the area either for developers as part of the City’s archaeological code or for planning efforts. While the archaeological site reports listed below do not deal with the operation of the rail yard, they do chronicle the continuing importance of Potomac Yard to the transportation industry and the economy of Alexandria and the region.
Adams, Robert M.
- 1996 - Report on R, F & P Potomac Yard – Track Relocation Project. International Archaeological Consultants, Hayes, Virginia. (This report not available online.)
- 1996 - The Archaeological Investigation of the Former Preston Plantation and Alexandria Canal at Potomac Yard. Alexandria, Virginia. International Archaeological Consultants, Hayes, Virginia.
Before developing the project area into a retail center, archaeologists assessed the former location of the Alexander family’s Preston plantation and cemetery, dating to the early 1700s, and the Alexandria Canal (1843–1887). The cemetery’s burials were moved to Pohick Church in 1922. The area was graded in 1933 to accommodate a rail yard, so the plantation and cemetery likely were leveled. The study area played a considerable role in rail transport. Its first line was completed in 1857, and used by the United States Military Railroad during the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, it contained probably the largest railway classification yard in the U.S. Unfortunately the area’s several uses were not visible in the highly disturbed soil. The historic topography had been removed through grading and filling so there were no cultural resources present.
Cheek, Charles D. and Dana B. Heck
- 1996 - Archeological Observations at the Townes at Slater's Village Alexandria, Virginia. John Milner Associates, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia.
Johnson, Edward and Tammy Bryant
- 2012 - Letter Report: Archaeological Investigations within Landbay L, Potomac Yard Property, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archaeology, Gainesville, Virginia
Kaye, Ruth Lincoln
- 1988 - Study of Local Maps and Plats for the Potomac Yard Property. (This report not available online.)
Mullen, John P. and Curt Breckenridge
- 2007 - Archaeological Resource Management Plan for the Potomac Yard Property, Landbays E, G, H, I, J, K, L, and M, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archaeology, Gainesville, Virginia. Report Part I. Report Part II. Appendices.
Mullen, John P. and William P. Barse
- 2012 - Archaeological Investigations within a Portion of Potomac Avenue and Associated East/West Roads and of Site 44AX0204, Potomac Yard Property, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archaeology, Gainesville, Virginia. Plates and Appendices.
- 2011 - Geoarchaeological Investigations of a Portion of Landbay G, Potomac Yard Property, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archaeology, Gainesville, Virginia.
Wagner, Daniel P.
- 2003 - Sedimentological and Geomorphological Interpretations of Borings Along a Planned Outfall Pipe at the Potomac Greens Development in Alexandria, Virginia. Geo-Sci Consultants, Inc. University Park, Maryland. (This report not available online.)
Walker, Mark K. and Marilyn Harper
- 1989 - Potomac Yard Inventory of Cultural Resources. Engineering Science, Inc., Washington, D.C.
Archival study of the project area, thought to have been settled in the 17th–18th century, documented several periods and uses of the property. Archaeologists suggested the possibility of prehistoric usage of the area. There were three agricultural occupations: first, by a tenant farmer; second, by Preston plantation of the Alexander family, which sustained troop occupation during the Civil War; and, third, by the Fendall family farm. The Alexander and Fendall properties had accompanying family cemeteries, though the former’s burials were moved to Pohick Church in 1922; archaeologists recommended testing for remaining burials. The late-19th-century suburban neighborhood of St. Asaph’s Junction, with its associated railroad station, was also in this area. Archaeologists assessed the potential of the station’s foundations surviving as low but possible. The project area also had major transportation uses. The Alexandria Canal (1843–1887) made its way through most of Potomac Yard before turning east to the city. The area also played a role in rail transport. Its first line—Alexandria and Washington Railroad—was completed in 1857 and used by the United States Military Railroad during the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, it contained probably the largest railway classification yard in the U.S.—Potomac Yard—interchanging and classifying freight for five, then six, railroad companies—the first such yard in the country. This report included discussion of the study area’s architectural resources, such as the bunkhouse and engine house—the only two structures likely dating to the time of the original rail yard. The report also mentioned the possibility of finding the archaeological remains of other structures as well as rail lines, shops, etc.