Extending the Shoreline with Bulkhead Wharves

Archaeologists exploring the Alexandria waterfront in advance of the ongoing redevelopment have revealed the location of the 1749 shoreline and uncovered evidence of the “banking out” process used to extend the shoreline and create a deeper harbor.

Page updated on Mar 15, 2020 at 11:27 AM

Extending the Shoreline with Bulkhead Wharves  

The Crescent Bay

When Alexandria was established as a town in 1749, its center  was situated on cliffs above a crescent-shaped bay lying between two projecting headlands. A tobacco trading post had been established in the 1730s at the headland to the north, known as West’s Point, where a road (now Oronoco Street) cut through the bank leading down to a wharf area. To the south, the crescent bay ended at Point Lumley, at the foot of what is now Duke Street. 

Along the crescent bay, the cliffs rose 15 or 20 feet high. In 1749, the river in front of the cliffs was only four to five feet deep, but farther out in the Potomac River the channel reached 48-feet deep. 

Map of Alexandria, 1749    Luallen Drawing
Banking Out

Waterfront lot owners, who retained ownership of any new land they made in front of their properties, undertook the work of knocking down the bluffs and creating wharves reaching out to the deep channel, in a process known as banking out. Wharves created by building walls parallel to the shore and filling them from the land side are known as “bulkhead wharves,” or, in Britain, “quays.” Sometimes, old ship’s hulls were secured along the shore, as part of the wharf framework. Documentary and archaeological evidence shows that the bay was completely filled by about 1798.

Under the Banks

Before the bay was filled, some warehouses were constructed on the lower riverbank in front of the cliffs. These included the Public Warehouse, built on Point Lumley in 1755.

The 1749 Shoreline 

ShorelineArchaeologists could clearly see the 1749 shoreline during excavation of the Hotel Indigo site. The photograph shows two very distinct types of soil: the lighter-colored sandy soil on the right is the original shore, and the darker-colored clayey soil on the left is landfill that was deposited as the bay was filled.

James Kirk’s Wharves: Extending Lot 85

On the Robinson Terminal South site, archaeologists discovered the remains of three bulkhead wharf structures that were built in the 18th-century to expand Lot 85 beyond the natural shoreline.

Thomas 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 his death, his widow 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 18thand 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 the well-known furniture-maker 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 were not leased.

The 18th- Century Wharf

The first wharf to be excavated, known to archaeologists as Feature 161, is located just north of Wolfe Street and runs roughly east-west, generally parallel to the street. It was found below the foundation remains of several structures and extends under paved portions of The Strand, which was laid out as a 21-foot-wide alley in the 1780s. This appears to be the early wharf constructed before James Kirk’s death in 1786.

The remains of the wharf consist of two main walls made up of large cut beams and some un-milled logs, secured with tie backs and cross braces.  A third wall is assumed to exist underneath Wolfe Street, but is not visible as it is outside the project area. The north wall is made of three stacked logs at its western end and four logs towards the east, closer to the Potomac River. The eastern wall of this feature is five logs tall and large rocks were found along the eastern edge of the wall. The timbers on the northeast corner appear to be joined using a crude corner notching technique, possibly lock notched. This construction method gives the corners a “Lincoln Log” appearance. Towards the western section of the feature, there is a continuous course of horizontally laid abutting timbers running roughly east-west, parallel to Wolfe Street.   

RTS Panorama

Panorama of cribbing on the Robinson Terminal South site. Image Source, Jeff Hancock Hancock Photography.

RTS Features 165 and 162 map19th-Century Wharves

The structures known to archaeologists as Features 165 and 162 appear to have been constructed in the 19th century. Initial evaluation and consultation of relevant maps (shown here) suggests that these two features were used in the land making process in the 1840s.

Feature 165, a bulkhead wharf, 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 the bulkhead wharf (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.  

The bulkhead wharves helped create the city’s modern shoreline. They provided the foundation on which early Alexandrians built their homes and commercial ventures. They provided access to deeper water in the Potomac, bringing ships, goods, and people from around the world to the city. Banking out was fundamental to the development of the port and these wharves and piers served as Alexandria’s lifeline to the world. 

Field Updates

During the waterfront excavations, archaeologists posted periodic updates of recent discoveries.

Hotel Indigo Site

Robinson Terminal South

More Information

Articles and Presentations

Niculescu, Tatiana

Skolnik, Benjamin A. 

  • 2018 - Preserving Ships on Alexandria’s Historic Waterfront: Alexandria Archaeology and the City’s Maritime Heritage. In Toasting Our Town, Historic Alexandria Foundation.
  • 2018 - Recent Maritime Archaeology on the Alexandria WaterfrontMAHSNews, Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 2018. Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society.