Robinson Terminal South Excavation Update: Pioneer Mills, part 1

In September 2017, archaeologists continued to excavate at the Robinson Terminal South site. They uncovered the foundations of Pioneer Mills just to the east of 2 Duke Street.

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

Pioneer Mills, part 1

September 2017


Pioneer Mills foundation and floor with USCGC Eagle

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.

View from Pioneer Mill, looking up the wharf. Source: Library of CongressBuilt in 1854, Pioneer Mills was six stories tall, made of brick, stone, and slate, and dominated the Alexandria waterfront for more than 50 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1897. One of the most iconic 19th-century photographs of the waterfront, seen here, was taken from the top of Pioneer Mills looking north up the waterfront.

Several weeks before the mill’s opening in 1854, the following was published in the Alexandria Gazette:

The Alexandria Steam Flour Company have now erected their splendid Steam Mill in this place, and it being nearly completed and ready for the commencement of operations, we have taken great pleasure in going through it, and examining its capabilities.

The Mill, built of brick of the best and most durable materials, slate roof and fire proof, is situated on the Strand at the foot of Duke Street. It fronts on the Potomac River 122 feet – the main the main building being 80 feet deep - and the engine room 32 - making a total depth of 112 feet. It is six stories high, and the roof 77 feet above high water mark, or 73 feet from the first floor. It has 12 run-of-burr mill stones and splendid steam engine of 250 horse power. The Mill is capable of turning out eight hundred barrels of flour per day, and of consuming, per day, four thousand bushels of wheat. Attached to the Mill is an elevator for taking grain from the holds of vessels, and carrying it directly into the building. Large vessels can be loaded directly at the door of the Mill. A wharf has been constructed on the north side of the building on which a switch from the track of the railroad on Union Street will be laid - so that grain form the cars will be brought, also, directly to the Mill.

This establishment is the largest Steam Flour Mill in the United States – and second only in extent to the Gallego Mills in Richmond. All the appurtenances and machinery are of the best kind, and the most modern improvements have been introduced.

Mr. William H. Fowle, is the General Agent, Mr. James C. Nevett, the Clerk and Treasurer, and Mr. R. F. Roberts, Chief Miller.

The Mill will be entirely finished throughout in the course of four or six weeks and operations commenced soon afterwards.

(Alexandria Gazette March 11, 1854)

While the large mill could produce large quantities of flour, this was also a liability. Without a constant supply of grain to mill into flour, the mill would sit idle and empty and would actually cost its owners money. The surrounding Virginia countryside could not meet the mill’s demand for grain, so shipments were brought in from throughout the mid-Atlantic. The mill struggled to make a profit and by 1859, the owners of the Alexandria Flour Company advertised that Pioneer Mills and its coopers shop were for sale. During the Civil War, the mill was taken over by the Union Army and used as a commissary storehouse and its docks were used to load and unload supplies for the war. After the Civil War, the owners of Pioneer Mills continued to struggle to make the mill profitable. In 1874, millstones and other machinery were sold in order to pay outstanding taxes. The next year, the entire property was ordered to be sold to pay outstanding local and state taxes.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, Pioneer Mills continued to see a variety of uses and owners. It was used as a grain warehouse, and was owned or leased by the Potomac Manufacturing Company which then became the Virginia Iron Ship Building Company, the J.C. Herbert Bryant Fertilizer Company, and the Haskins Wood Vulcanizing Company. Because of these subsequent uses of the building and periods of vacancy, archaeologists do not expect to find much direct evidence of the milling operations intact and in the ground. 

The mill was badly damaged during a “cyclone” in 1896 and was finally destroyed during the 1897 fire that started across the street at Herbert Bryant’s fertilizer plant. The partial remains of Pioneer Mill stood for the next decade as ruins, and in 1910 the Emerson Engine Company machine shop was built on the footprint of the old Pioneer Mills. This in turn was demolished by 1937 in order to build the Robinson Terminal South warehouses which stood on the site until recently.

Alexandria Gazette - September 30, 1896

Alexandria Gazette - June 3, 1897

In order to expose the mill’s foundations, archaeologists must first dig through layers of rubble related to the destruction of this structure. Pictured here are pockets of brick, stone, and slate debris, all of which were used to build Pioneer Mills, as well as the burn layer related to the 1897 fire.

brick debris Slate debris

stone burn layer

Here is an exposed section of the mill wall and floor with the USCGC Eagle in the background. Note the robust stone foundations with brick walls above as well as the worn brick floor. The walls needed to be thick in order to support the massive brick building above as well as the weight of the grain and machinery inside.

Exposed section of mill floor and foundation walls

While exposing the mill’s foundations and floor, archaeologists also uncovered several of these iron tools whose purpose is not immediately clear. Additional research into the workings of the steam mill or the later manufacturing operations may tell us what these were used for. 

Iron tools

Thunderbird archaeologists will continue to expose and document the rest of the mill’s foundation located at the end of Duke Street.