Archaeology at Robinson Terminal South

Archaeologists worked at the site of Robinson Terminal South from February 2017 to November 2018. Significant discoveries included the remains of three 18th century ships, the foundations of Hooe's 18th century warehouse and store and the 19th century Pioneer Mill.

Page updated on Dec 16, 2021 at 9:06 AM

Archaeology at Robinson Terminal South

2 Duke Street

Robinson Terminal South site, shown on the 1748 map
The Robinson Terminal Site, shown on the 1748 map of Alexandria. 
Robinson Terminal South site, on Magnus' Birds-eye View of Alexandria
The Robinson Terminal Site, shown on Magnus' Birdseye View of Alexandria, 1863.

Located across Duke Street from the Hotel Indigo site (where archaeologists previously uncovered an 18th-century ship and warehouse) this site was until recently the site of a newsprint warehouse on Alexandria’s waterfront. It is now the site of EYA’s Robinson Landing development.

Archaeologists located the remains of three more 18th century ships, as well as foundations of Hooe's 18th century warehouse and store and the 19th century Pioneer Mill.

Historic Context

Currently bounded by Duke, Wolfe and S. Union Streets and the Potomac River, only the northwest corner of the block existed as dry land when a young George Washington made this map of the area in 1748. This point of land was called Point Lumley, one of the two original deep-water landings in Alexandria. The remainder of the block was created as a part of the same late 18th and early 19th century banking-out process that created new land along Alexandria’s waterfront.

18th Century Ships and the Bulkhead Wharves: A likely interpretation of how three ships came to be buried on this block is that once they were past their prime as sea-going vessels, they were used as fill to extend the City’s shoreline into the Potomac. By 1780 The Strand, a 21-foot wide alley running north-south, was built atop the wharf structures. Most of the block was filled in and the outline of the original Point Lumley had disappeared by the turn of the 19th-century, but the construction of wharves and filling in of the shore continued to take place at least into the 1840s. Read about the historic ship stabilization project.

The 1783 Hooe Warehouse: Robert Townsend Hooe built a large warehouse with a massive stone foundation. This warehouse played an important role in Alexandria’s early trade and commercial history. A Mutual Assurance Fire insurance policy taken out by Hooe in 1796 identified the foundations of 72’ long by 44’ wide warehouse, which he insured for 9,000 dollars. The warehouse was demolished at some time in the 19th century, replaced by the building still standing at 2 Duke Street.

The 1786 Bakery: After archaeologists recovered a surviving piece of hardtack, or ship’s biscuit, documentary research revealed that nearby structures included a bakehouse first advertised by Bridget Kirk in 1786. The next year, the bakery was leased by Anderson and Jamieson, who advertised “all sorts of ship bread, and the fine small bread.” Jamieson operated the bakery at this location until 1802. In 1832, Jamieson built a three-story bakery a few blocks away, at the corner of North Lee Street (then called Water Street) and Thompson’s Alley. This later bakery continued in operation into the 1880s and was excavated by Alexandria Archaeology in 1997. 

The 1854 Pioneer Mills: Built in 1854 for the Alexandria Steam Flour Company, Pioneer Mills was the largest steam flour mill in the United States. Its size was, however, a liability, and the mill too often sat idle. The mill was offered for sale in 1859 and was taken over by the Union Army during the Civil War for use as a commissary storehouse. After the war, the mill served a variety of uses until it was badly damaged during a cyclone in 1896 and then destroyed by fire in 1897. (The fire began at the Bryant Fertilizer Factory on the adjacent Hotel Indigo Site.) The partial remains stood as ruins until 1920, when the Emerson Engine Company built a machine shop on the footprint of the old mill. The machine shop was demolished in 1937 to make way for the Robinson Terminal South warehouses.

2 Duke Street: The historic brick building which remains on site was probably built sometime before 1877 and was extensively repaired after the fire of 1897. This building was used as offices by Robinson Terminal South, and is being incorporated into the new waterfront development.

Other Foundations and Features: Archaeologists located stone foundations of dwellings on S. Union Street that can be seen on a Civil War photograph. They also excavated a brick shaft (a privy or well) at the back of one of these structures, and uncovered box privies, barrel privies, and brick-lined privies elsewhere on the site.

Excavation Highlights

Ship 3 excavation October 2018, looking south(1)

Field Excavation Updates

  • April 2017: Foundations, shafts and privies Archaeologists began by digging a series of diagonal trenches across the northwest corner of the site in an attempt to uncover any building foundations or other features that may still exist. These long, deep trenches are also useful for looking at the changes in soil layers across the site as well as documenting the location of the original Point Lumley. Trenching on just this corner of the site has already uncovered several historic features. So far, the site represents a remarkably intact, well-preserved glimpse into early urban Alexandria. 
  • April 2017: Hooe Warehouse As archaeology continues at the future site of Robinson Landing, we are excited to announce that archaeologists have located Robert Townsend Hooe’s 18th-century warehouse and store. 
  • May 2017: Posts and privies Archaeologists from Thunderbird continue to uncover pieces of Alexandria’s past at the site of Robinson Landing on Alexandria’s waterfront. 
  • June 2017: Foundations and features Archaeologists completed the excavation of two stone foundation buildings along South Union Street, using photogrammetry to provide a map and a 3D model of the feature. They also uncovered an interesting brick foundation that may be a bake oven, and continued work on the Hooe warehouse.
  • July 2017: Foundations, bulkhead and bakery The excavations at Robinson Terminal South continue as archaeologists from Thunderbird complete the data recovery of features in the northwest section of the site (at the intersection of Duke and South Union).
  • August 2017: Wolfe Street and the Strand Archaeologists from Thunderbird Archaeology have just about wrapped up excavation in the northwest corner of the Robinson Landing site. They have continued their excavations in the central portions of the site, including the bakery and bulkhead complexes. They also have begun to dig in the south of the block, including here along Wolfe Street.
  • September 2017: Pioneer Mill, Part 1 Archaeologists from Thunderbird Archeology are now excavating to the east of the building at 2 Duke Street. There, they are beginning to uncover the imposing remains of Pioneer Mills in the company of the visiting USCGC Eagle
  • November 2017: Pioneer Mills, Part 2 The remains of Pioneer Mills have been fully uncovered and archaeologists are at work documenting the foundations and carefully disassembling the ruin in order to reuse its massive stone blocks in future waterfront construction.
  • February 2018: Buildings along Wolfe Street Archaeological work continues at the future site of Robinson Landing. Archaeologists have uncovered several interesting archaeological features and are preparing to excavate them.
  • March 2018: Uncovering two historic ships Spring brings more exciting discoveries at Robinson Landing. Archaeologists have recently uncovered two historic ships at the site.
  • April 2018: Uncovering historic ships and wharves Archaeologists working at the former site of Robinson Terminal South have discovered the remains of several historic ships and a wharf structure.  Initial evaluation indicates that these ships and wharves were probably used as part of the land making (banking out) process in the late 18th/early 19th century as early Alexandrians filled in the Potomac River shoreline.
  • May 2018: Ship #1 and Wharves  Ship #1 was successfully removed from the site and its timbers stored in tanks of water. Archaeologists are excavating the remains of a bulkhead wharf.
  • May 2018: Ship #3 Alexandria Archaeology has approved a resource management plan for Ship #3 at the Robinson Landing site.
  • June 2018: Wharves and bulkheads 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.
  • October 2018: Excavation of Ship #3 Contract archaeologists with the assistance of City staff are carefully documenting, excavating, and stabilizing the timbers of Ship 3, located along the Wolfe Street side of the site. 

Ship Preservation Updates

  • January 2019: Ship Preservation at the Bus Barn How much space do three dismantled 18th century ships take up? City archaeologists have recently discovered the answer to this question as they’ve moved the last of the timbers into tanks of water at the Bus Barn.
  • September 2019: Ship Documentation (part 1)  Work is underway to document and digitally record the timbers from each of the three ships discovered at the former site of Robinson Terminal South. Archaeologists from Texas A&M University join City archaeologists as they learn more about these ships. 
  • October 2019: Ship Documentation (part 2) Ship documentation continues as Alexandria Archaeology is joined by a team from Texas A&M University to laser scan the remains of Robinson Terminal South Ship 2 (Feature 155).
  • November 2019: Ship Documentation (part 3) This month our ship documentation team continued scanning, cleaning, and organizing timbers from Ship #3 (Feature 159) found at the Robinson Terminal South Site (44AX235).
  • December 2019: Ship Stabilization The City is currently developing a historic ship timbers stabilization plan. The project will safely relocate, store, and preserve the historic ships and a section of wharf found along the City’s waterfront at the Robinson Terminal South Site (44AX235) until a more permanent preservation project is feasible. 
  • December 2019: Ship Documentation (part 4) This month, City archaeologists and CRL researchers continue scanning timbers from Ship #3 (Feature 159) and begin work on reconstructing physical models of the ships.
  • June 2020: Ship Documentation and Model Progress Ship documentation and research has continued over the past few months. Efforts have primarily focused on creating 3D models of the ship hulls found at the Robinson Terminal South Site (44AX235). 
  • October 2020: Ship Documentation and 3D Model Progress 3D laser scanning of the three ships found at Robinson Terminal South (44AX235) has wrapped up and researchers at Texas A&M University are continuing to digitally reconstruct these ships.
  • March 2021: Ship Documentation, Digital and Physical models The conservation team is creating both digital and physical models of the three ship remnants found at the Robinson Terminal South Site (44AX235).
  • June 2021: Digital and Physical Model Progress The conservation team continues to create both digital and physical models of the three ship remnants found at the Robinson Terminal South Site (44AX235). 
  • September 2021: Historic Ship Stabilization: Ship Ponding  This project includes the stabilization and storage of three historic ship remnants excavated at the Robinson Landing Site. The overall goal of the project is to transport and store the timbers in Ben Brenman Pond (4800 Brenman Park Dr.) in a manner that preserves the possibility of future study and conservation when adequate funding and/or a location for permanent storage or display is available. Planning for the longer-term storage of the historic ship timbers began shortly after the ships were discovered in 2018.
  • January 2021: Ship Model Progress  Work is nearly complete on the digital model of Ship #3.