Robinson Terminal South Excavation Update: Wharves and Bulkheads

In June 2018, archaeologists uncovered more wharves and cribbing at the Robinson Terminal South site. These features are evidence of banking out and early waterfront activities.

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Note: The information on this page reflects the state of knowledge when this update was written. Information may have changed. 

Wharves and Bulkheads (Feature 162 and Feature 165)

June 2018

Robinson Terminal South, Feature 165Archaeologists have been busy uncovering even more evidence of Alexandria’s ever expanding shoreline.

Contract archaeologists from Thunderbird Archeology working at the former site of Robinson Terminal South have recently discovered the remains of two more harbor structures used to “bank out” or extend the city’s shoreline. Initial evaluation and consultation of relevant maps suggests that these two features were used in the land making process in the 1840s.

Feature 165 is another bulkhead wharf. It is located to the south of the first ship (Feature 155) excavated at this site and to the north of the third ship discovered near Wolfe Street (Feature 159). The feature runs roughly north-south, generally paralleling the river. It was found to the east of The Strand. The uncovered remains of the bulkhead wharf consist of several different structures. The southern end is made up of three or four un-milled stacked timbers, running roughly north-south, sitting on sandy soil. It is roughly 70 feet north-south and about 20 feet east-west; however, a 30-foot north-south portion of the wall in this area is either missing or has not been exposed yet. The northern end of the structure appears to be a crib or possible coffer dam. It is roughly 50 feet north-south by 15 feet east-west and is made using at least 10 milled timbers that are stacked forming a rectangular “crib” construction. The interior of this feature is filled with stacked timber.  

Feature 162 is a series of logs and tree trunks, running perpendicular to the southern portion of Feature 165. It is roughly 55 feet east-west by 40 feet north-south. The relationship between the two features is still unclear, but the logs do not appear to be associated tie-backs for the bulkhead wharf.  

Both Feature 162 and 165 are located within Parcel 5 of Lot 85 and are evidence of the lots expansion beyond the natural shoreline into the Potomac River. This parcel, located to the east of the Strand, was likely home to an active wharf-front from the 1780s onward. In the late 18th-century, this lot was associated with both Thomas Fleming and James and Bridget Kirk. Fleming purchased the lot from the town trustees in 1763. At that time, most of the southern portion of this block was in tidal mudflats. In 1770 Fleming sold the property to James Kirk, a merchant and later Mayor of Alexandria. The Kirks built land and a wharf, and laid out an alley before James Kirk died in 1786, after which Bridget Kirk began subdividing and leasing parcels on the lot. Following Bridget’s death in 1797, the property passed to her son Robert Kirk and eventually his wife Sarah. During the Kirks’ ownership in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, numerous individuals leased portions of the wharf. In 1830, Sarah Kirk sold Parcel 5 to Henry Dangerfield, who is listed as the owner of the “wharehouses and wharf” by the corner of Wolfe Street and The Strand in an 1830 tax list. In turn, Dangerfield sold the property to James Green in May 1843. The 1850 tax list records no occupant for the “House and Wharf” east of The Strand, suggesting that these were now being used by Green’s lumberyard business and not leased.RTS Features 165 and 162 map

Archaeologists have been busily documenting these features using measured drawings and photographs and dendrochronology samples will also be taken from the two features. Feature 165 will also be bisected to get better look at the structure and fill in profile. These detailed records will provide valuable data on how people in the past created land to meet their needs. Though these two features may date to a later round of shoreline expansion, they are still critical to telling the story of the waterfront since they built upon earlier structures and helped give Alexandria its modern outline. This site, when treated as a whole, will be critical for better understanding 18th and 19th century wharf construction methods, which were not standardized, and strategies, which were often ad hoc and dependent on local environmental and economic factors.

Alexandria Archaeology has undertaken extensive research on previously excavated wharf sites. For additional information, see Dr. Shephard’s article in The Alexandria Chronicle: "Reaching for the Channel: Some Documentary and Archaeological Evidence of Extending Alexandria’s Waterfront."