Discovering the Decades: 1850s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1850s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Sep 25, 2020 at 11:41 AM

Points in Time

  • 1850: Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act 
  • 1850: First cast iron and glass buildings; Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter published; Harper's Monthly begins publication
  • 1851: Isaac Singer patents improved sewing machine; Western Union founded; Herman Melville's Moby Dick  published; New York Times begins publication; Alexandrians contribute an inscribed marble block for inclusion in the Washington Monument
  • 1852: Elisha Otis invents safety elevator; Uncle Tom's Cabin published
  • 1853: Gadsden Purchase  of parts of Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico
  • 1854: Commodore Perry opens Japan to U.S. trade; Kansas-Nebraska Act; Republican Party founded; Know-Nothing Party  successful in many local elections; Henry David Thoreau's Walden published
  • 1855: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass published
  • 1857: Supreme Court Dred Scott decisionfinancial Panic  
  • 1858: Lincoln-Douglas debates; first telegraph message by Trans-Atlantic cable; Colorado gold rush; New York's Central Park opened
  • 1859: John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry 
  • 1869: First oil well drilled at Titusville, Pa; first telegraph message between the east and west coasts; Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) founded; Darwin's Origin of the Species published

The 1850s were a period of commercial and industrial expansion as Alexandria emerged from the economic doldrums to find itself on the cusp of the industrial revolution. The town's population increased from 8,734 in 1850 to 12,652 in 1860. Statistics from the 1850 census reveal there were 6,390 whites; 1,301 free blacks and 1,061 enslaved people. In 1858, with the approval of a new charter, Alexandria officially became a city.

Commerce and Physical Changes

Between 1851 and 1854, Alexandria experienced a building boom as more than 700 houses were constructed. "The stagnation and dullness which had prevailed here before had given way to economic prosperity. Houses which erst went begging for occupants were filled to overflowing... The miserable skeletons of antiquated buildings are metamorphosed into large, neat and substantial edifices which are useful and ornamental. Many of these dwellings were commodious, 3-story Greek Revival town dwellings of pressed brick with ornate molded brick cornices. Examples of these may be seen in the 300 and 400 block of Duke, Prince and Cameron Street and in 300 block of South St. Asaph Street." [Ethelyn Cox, Historic Alexandria, Virginia Street By Street] In 1850 the assessed value of property in Alexandria was $2,850,935. By 1859 it had increased to $5,306,105, after a dip following the Panic of 1857.

The strongly Whig political and business leadership supported many publicly subsidized infrastructure improvements during the 1850s. "Among the many internal improvements which ornamented Alexandria during this era were a new gas and waterworks. The gas plant was situated on the southeast corner of Lee and Oronoco Streets and was completed around the end of 1851. Underground pipes supplied local denizens and street lamps with gas as Alexandrians were ushered into a new epoch of illumination.... Through the years Alexandria had suffered the scourge of typhoid and dysentery epidemics. To eliminate these maladies Benjamin Hallowell, a prominent Quaker teacher, proposed that a public reservoir be built atop Shuter's Hill. A water company was established, and Hallowell was named its first president. The work of laying pipes and constructing a reservoir was finished by 1852 and water let into town on June 15th of that year." [William F. Smith and T. Michael Miller, A Seaport Saga: A Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia]

Hooffs Run Bridge image
Hoof's Run Bridge

It was also during the 1850s that Alexandria was transformed into a major railroad hub. The Orange & Alexandria Railroad  was organized in 1848. "Its charter stipulated that the company's track would be laid from Gordonsville to Alexandria via Orange Courthouse and Culpeper. On May 6, 1851, the first locomotive belched smoke and cinders and the shrill sound of its whistle could be heard as it chugged down Union Street to the Wilkes Street tunnel." [Smith and Miller] In the middle of the decade, the Orange & Alexandria constructed a tunnel on Wilkes Street, to carry the trains through the bluff at Lee Street and down to the waterfront, and a stone bridge over Hooff's Run.

Alexandria was also serviced by three other railroads. Incorporated in 1854, the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire operated between Alexandria and Leesburg and the coal mining region in what is now West Virginia. The Manassas Gap Railroad, chartered in 1850, was primarily controlled by agricultural interests in Fauquier County. By the terms of a lease agreement, freight and passenger service was extended to Alexandria via the Orange & Alexandria. Friction soon developed between the two companies, and the Manassas line complained bitterly about the exorbitant freight rates it was charged. Thus, in 1852, the rail company received permission from the state of Virginia to construct a parallel line beside the Orange & Alexandria branch all the way to Alexandria. With the outbreak of the Civil War, this line, which was supposed to terminate at Jones Point, was never completed. "...Another major antebellum railroad was the Alexandria & Washington. Owned and operated by the dynamic James Strange French, this short line ran from its turntable at Princess and North St. Asaph Streets northwesterly to the east side of the Alexandria and Washington Turnpike until it reached the Fourteenth Street Bridge. From there the passengers alighted and took a horse drawn vehicle to Washington proper." [Smith and Miller]

Recognizing the importance of transportation, Council purchased stock in several of the railroad companies, considered extending the Alexandria Canal into the heart of the city, and made great strides in improving wharves and in grading, paving and draining streets (such as finally creating the 700 block of Cameron Street, cutting it through and around the north side of the Christ Church yard). [T. Michael Miller, Two Centuries of Leadership: Alexandria's Mayoralty, 1780 to 1998]

The railroads had a major economic, industrial and commercial impact on Alexandria. "Wheat and flour deliveries to Alexandria increased rapidly in the 1850s; during the year 1859 alone the city received 91,000 bushels of wheat destined for shipment to other ports, making it the second largest wheat exporting center in the state." [Hurst] In 1852, the Alexandria Steam Flour company erected one of the largest flour mills in the United States at the foot of Duke Street along the Potomac River. Known as Pioneer Mill, it was six-stories high, had twelve millstones and a 250-horsepower engine capable of turning out 800 barrels of flour per day and consuming four thousand bushels of wheat. [Smith and Miller] "At the same time freight trains laden with guano fertilizer from South American moved inland from the port carrying an item which was indispensable to the agricultural renaissance in northern Virginia..." [Harold Hurst, Alexandria on the Potomac: A Portrait of an Antebellum Town]

Alexandria became known as a national coal depot during the antebellum era as "old warehouses were turned into storage bins; vacant lots suddenly became coal yards; and crumbling docks were fitted up as new wharves to receive the produce of countless coal barges returning the Appalachian area." The Maryland Mining Company, Allegheny and Frostburg Mining Company, Cumberland Iron and Coal Company, and American Coal Company maintained extensive shipping facilities on the Alexandria waterfront. By the late 1850s, the coal trade had become so brisk that a shortage of transport vessels left between twenty and thirty thousands of the black gold on the docks. [Hurst]

"Beside [its] railroad facilities, Alexandria was home to the Smith and Perkins Locomotive Works. Located on the south side of Wolfe at Union Street, the manufactory covered 51,500 feet of ground fronting on the Potomac River. The company manufactured engines for the Manassas Gap Railroad, Baltimore & Ohio, and Hudson Valley Railroads. Indeed, all the cars utilized on the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad were constructed at this establishment. Smith and Perkins employed between 160 and 200 men..." [Smith and Miller]

Green Steam Furniture Factory image
The Green Steam Furniture Factory building still stands, at the corner of Prince and South Fairfax Streets.

Alexandria was also home to other industries such as machine shops and foundries. Isaac Entwistle and William S. Moore were the proprietors of a large manufactory on Union Street where they produced boilers, mill gearing, steam engines, iron fencing and other railroad equipment. Thomas Jamieson's plant which was advertised as "...fitted up with every facility and convenience for working in metals..." produced railroad cars as did John Summers, the proprietor of a factory on the 100 block of South Pitt Street. [Hurst] Alexandria's wealthiest and most successful entrepreneur in the pre-Civil War era was James Green, proprietor of the Green Steam furniture factory where he manufactured sofas, tables, chairs on the southeast corner of Prince and Fairfax Streets. Some examples of his furniture can be seen at The Lyceum: Alexandria's History Museum.

Alexandria's retail and wholesale businesses also blossomed during the decade:

Alexandria cannot with truth be called any longer a one-horse town. How much soever evil-disposed people may talk about its slow progress, all must admit that the old City is at this time in the march of steady improvement.... What man can say now that Alexandria is a small concern when she can boast of some of the first merchants in Virginia; men who are sustained by any amount of capital and who import their goods from the distant shores of Europe.... [Alexandria Gazette 8/11/1857, quoted from the Warrenton Whig]

As most towns were, Alexandria was plagued by fires throughout its history. Following the destruction of the town's tobacco warehouse in 1853 and other incidents, the Common Council passed a very early zoning law on November 14, 1854, which prohibited the construction of wooden buildings in certain areas of town. And after Friendship Fire Company's old station house at 107 South Alfred Street burned, a new engine house was subsequently constructed on the site in 1855 with financial assistance from the town. In spite of these efforts, a serious fire erupted at 213-217 King Street in November 1855. Seven firemen were killed when the burning building collapsed on them. [Miller]

Social Life

Jones Point Lighthouse image
Jones Point Lighthouse

Alexandrians enjoyed a wide variety of entertainment during the 1850s. They attended theater performances at Serepta Hall on the 400 block of King Street or frequented lectures at the Lyceum where renowned orators such as George Washington Parke Custis, John Quincy Adams, and Caleb Cushing lectured. Other speakers mesmerized audiences at American and Liberty Halls [north side of the 400 block of Cameron Street] as they debated political issues of the day. During hot sultry summers, Alexandrians promenaded to Jones Point where they visited the newly constructed federal lighthouse (1855).

Not all entertainment was so high-minded or genteel. In 1854 Council saw fit to "protect the public morality" and enacted blue laws which outlawed the sale of liquor on Sunday. Municipal authorities believed "that the sale of spirituous liquors on the Sabbath day like many other trades while it is an infraction of divine law, it exerts a most prejudicial and baneful influence upon the morals of the community." Therefore be it enacted "that all bar rooms connected with hotels, taverns or other houses shall be kept closed on Sunday... That any person violating this Act shall forfeit and pay the sum not less that $200..." [Miller]

On June 26, 1850, the Common Council passed a resolution whereby it agreed to take charge of and make all necessary provisions for the support and care of the poor within the city. No longer would citizens be levied against to support the poor of Alexandria County. [Miller]

African Americans

About ten percent of Alexandria's 12,600 residents were free African Americans in 1860. They made their living in a number of ways, but most were laborers, domestics and laundresses. Poor free blacks could be hired out as laborers by the City if they could not pay their head taxes. Among the more affluent was carpenter and builder George Seaton, already prominent and respected in the community. [Alexandria Gazette 2/12/1858; Miller] Slavery was a declining institution in antebellum Alexandria. Whereas in 1790, slaves constituted approximately one-fifth of the city's population by the 1850s, they accounted for a little more than one-tenth of the total number, because of in-migration of whites and the stagnation of local agriculture.

"Many slaves also worked along the waterfront at Fishtown cleaning and gutting thousands of tons of shad and herring. One account describes a female fish cleaner as covered from head to toe in scales as they performed their tasks with wonderful alacrity and skill." [Hurst] Because fish were inexpensive, they formed an essential component of African American's diets.

For the most part there were few racial disturbances in Alexandria during this period with the exception of a riot which occurred between whites and "persons of color" in December 1853. "Stones were thrown, pistols fired, and services at the African Methodist Church were disrupted." [Hurst]

The decade was a violent one elsewhere, however. The polarization over slavery was reaching a crisis. The Compromise of 1850 struck blows at the institution by outlawing the slave trade in the District of Columbia and by admitting California as a free state. On the other hand, it also tightened enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Acts, which infuriated abolitionists. In addition, the western territories were permitted to choose whether to permit or prohibit slavery, in violation of the agreement made in 1820. In Kansas, the issue erupted into a bloody Civil War in 1856.

The decade ended on an ominous note when one of the veterans of "Bleeding Kansas," abolitionist John Brown, led a raid on the arsenal at Harpers' Ferry on October 16, 1859. Although his efforts to provoke and arm a slave uprising failed, Brown's attack "was a fire bell in the night," that caused consternation among the Southern States. Alexandria's militia units, under orders from Virginia Governor Wise, repaired to Harpers Ferry to quell the disturbance. Brown was later hanged, but the incident served as a prelude to the catastrophic Civil War which enveloped the country during the 1860s, but led to the final destruction of American slavery.

Moments in Time: The Alexandria Custom House

The Alexandria Custom House and Post Office, was built in 1858, having been designed by Ammi Young, architect for federal public buildings, who produced many public structures between 1849 and 1860. Located on the southwest corner of Prince and St. Asaph Streets, it was a completely fireproof structure, made of granite with cast iron doors, window frames and stairways. The Post Office was on the first floor, the customs rooms on the second, and a courtroom on the third. As originally constructed, it consisted of three bays on each street facade, but it was later enlarged to five bays on the St. Asaph Street side. [Smith and Miller]

Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria's early history.

Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.