Discovering the Decades: 1870s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1870s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Jun 29, 2017 at 10:41 AM

Points in Time

  • 1870: U.S. population about 38,558,000 and immigration is 387,203
  • 1870: Fifteenth Amendment ratified  
  • 1870: First U.S. elevated railway opens; first asphalt road
  • 1871: The Civil Rights Act of 1871, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, is passed to protect African Americans in South
  • 1872: Great Chicago Fire; Amnesty Act for former Confederates; Crédit Mobilier scandal; Apaches are moved to reservation; Victoria Woodhull first woman presidential candidate, (running mate Frederick Douglass); Civil Service reform; first mail-order company, Montgomery Ward, established
  • 1873: Financial panic and five-year depression begun with the failure of Jay Cooke’s bank; U.S. put on gold standard; first U.S. public kindergarten
  • 1874: Chatauqua movement begins  
  • 1875: Civil Rights Act
  • 1875: Whisky Ring scandal 
  • 1875: Black Hills Gold Rush
  • 1875-81: First successful dynamos for outdoor electric lighting
  • 1876: Bell patents telephone; Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published; Secretary of War Belknap impeached  
  • 1876-1877: Samuel Tilden wins popular (but disputed) vote for president—electoral commission declares Republican Rutherford B. Hayes victor
  • 1876-1881: War with Sioux and allied tribes 
  • 1877: Reconstruction ends with withdrawal of troops from South
  • 1877: Greenback Labor Party founded; Black Beauty published
  • 1878: American Bar Association established; Edison patents phonograph
  • 1879: California bans employment of Chinese; first gasoline-powered vehicle patented; Edison invents practical incandescent light bulb ; Church of Christ (Scientist) founded; first Woolworth “five and dime” store

Alexandria only slowly recovered from the trauma of the Civil War. By the 1870s, the town saw signs of resurgence, but judged relative to progress elsewhere, it seemed to be slipping further behind. The local paper was filled with boosterish optimism: "everything now has an animated and business aspect. There are more people on the streets; the stores and places of business present a 'live' appearance, all indicating growing prosperity. Dwelling houses for small families...are in demand. The prospect at present is brighter for the future of Alexandria than at any time within the past ten years..." [Alexandria Gazette 4/3/1871] "With railroad connections, North, East, South and West, with water connections to the principal cities North and South, and a daily increasing business by the developing of the varied industries of our State, what is to prevent our old city from taking the lead among the cities of the South?" [Alexandria Gazette 4/28/1873]

Others saw things less favorably. A reporter from the Amherst Enterprise, for instance, described the city as doing very well but criticized its dilapidated housing stock: "...we saw very old, rusty, half worn, dilapidated buildings, small and mean that would greatly improve the city if they were burned..." A correspondent from the St. Louis Republican was less flattering: "One feels inclined to take off his hat at every house on account of its age, and salute the crumbling brick and mortar as relics of vanished generations. In fact, the only thing which appears to thrive in Alexandria is the English Ivy... Rip Van Winkle took the trouble to go into the Katskill mountain for his twenty-year nap – he ought to have come to Alexandria where he might have been sleeping yet.... But strange to say, this American Pompeii has resisted every phase of modern progress thus far..." [Alexandria Gazette 12/4/1872]

Although Alexandria was frequently the butt of such jokes, improvement was the foremost topic, and promoters made much of the city's rail links and its cheap rents and low commodity prices. Efforts were made, both public and private, to lure European immigrants to settle on the area's extensive underused (and not especially rich) lands. An obviously unsuccessful overture was made for the relocation of the U.S. Naval Academy to this bank of the Potomac River [Alexandria Gazette 11/13/1872].

Transportation improvements were already underway. During June, 1873, hundreds of laborers worked to install a double railroad track which would accommodate Alexandria first passenger railroad. Horse-drawn street cars operated from the foot of King Street, west to the Virginia House Hotel (southwest corner of King and Payne Streets), thence up Peyton Street to the stone bridge on Duke Street. For all practical purposes this was Alexandria's first attempt to implement a local transit system. The horse trolley was finished by July 1873 and all the cars running by the 21st. Unfortunately, the trolley was not well patronized, and ceased operation by September 1874 [Alexandria Gazette 6/4/1873 and 7/21/1873]. Road improvements were an important issue in local campaigns, and the government did undertake extensive repairs. The municipality was limited, however, in the kinds of investments it could make. In 1875 the City held $1,116,326 of unrecoverable debt, mainly involving non-performing pre-war investments in railroads and canals.

The Panic of 1873 and the ensuing depression further injured Alexandria's economy and caused high unemployment. Since the war ended, the City had opened a charity soup kitchen each winter, but as the depression-year winter of 1874-1875 was particularly frigid; the mayor received unprecedented numbers of requests for food and fuel. For many of the poor there was not a stick of wood or a pint of meal [Alexandria Gazette 2/11/1875].

By the fall of 1877, a large number of vagrants had assembled in Alexandria. Mayor Kosciusko Kemper ordered the police to "rid the city of tramps..." And, "if found inside the city after having been thus sent out, they will be put on the chain gang and required to clean the streets."

Economic activity increased during the second half of the decade. Re-opened after the Civil War, the Alexandria Canal was carrying record tonnages of coal from the mines around Cumberland, Maryland to the port of Alexandria, and thence to San Francisco or the Caribbean. The various coal yards employed several hundred laborers. The town also boasted the steam wheat mill of George Y. Worthington, the sash door and blind factories of Rishiell and Hooge and Jamieson, Uhler and Co., the brickyards of W.D. Corse and Co. and J.T. Lucas, the plaster mills of C.F. Lee, Jr. and Suttle and Stuart, the Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, the steam bakery of George R. Hill and Co., the Vienna brewery of R. Portner, the spoke factory of A. Rosenthall, the sumac mills of J.E. McGraw and A. Rosenthall, the Cameron distillery of Peter Fagan, the Alexandria distillery of Conrad, Mason and Co., the Alexandria street passenger railway, and the Agricultural and Industrial Association and other important interests such as the coal trade and our fishtown interests. [Alexandria Gazette 4/28/1873]


In 1870, Alexandria's population numbered about 13,570 inhabitants. The African American population had risen in number to nearly half of the total of Alexandria City/Alexandria County because of the arrival of thousands of former slaves during and after the war. Increasing in number, finally able to vote, and in cooperation with a still active group of local Republicans, African Americans made unprecedented political gains-which, unfortunately, were largely rolled back during the dark ages of Jim Crow. The leaders of the black community were mainly from that group of Alexandria natives who were already free before the war. In December 1873 an African American military company was organized, suggesting both the emergence of this black leadership class and a perceived need for protection. There was also a significant immigrant population, most notably including a very active and entrepreneurial German-American community.

In addition to the large industrial concerns, the city was home to 24 saloons, seven barbers, fourteen lawyers, seven doctors, eleven hotels and boarding houses, ten commission merchants, three photographers, three auctioneers, four insurance agents, two bankers, four land agents, seventeen liquor dealers, two distillers, four dentists and two express agents [Alexandria Gazette 6/15/1870].

Fire and flood

On December 31, 1872, an extensive fire destroyed Daingerfield's and Cazenove's block of five large warehouses in the commercial heart of the waterfront along the east side of the 100 block of N. Union Street. These grain and fertilizer warehouses sustained over $100,000 worth of damage and were among the most valuable buildings in the city. During the Civil War they had served as the chief storage facility for the commissary stores of the Federal army.

On August 17, 1873, after one of the heaviest deluges of rain in thirty years, many cellars in Alexandria filled with water. Houses were undermined, lives were endangered, city streets flooded, livestock drowned, and bridges and culverts were washed away.

On May 19, 1871, Alexandria's City Hall and the Market House caught fire and burned. The Alexandria Gazette remarked: "In this disaster Alexandria has lost one of its chief grand monuments around which has clung the revered memories of the past." [Gazette 5/1/1871] In a special address to City Council, Mayor Latham lamented the loss of the venerable City Hall building and suggested arrangements to house the Council and the various departments of the City government. Until City Hall was reconstructed, Council met in the Fairfax Street hall of the Harmonie Association, a German musical and social club [Alexandria Gazette 5/20/1871].

Council reviewed designs for a new City Hall submitted by architects Adolph Cluss, B.F. Price and John Lambdin. Council ultimately selected Cluss -- a Communist and friend of Karl Marx and architect of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building and the Sumner and Franklin Schools in Washington-to supervise the reconstruction of the market house, City Hall, and the Cameron Street Masons lodge. E.H. Delahay acted as general contractor, and Joseph Hopkins supervised the interior work. The new facility was completed by January 1873 [Penny Morrill, Who Built Alexandria?].


Politics were in such a muddle in Alexandria in the spring of 1876 that the correspondent of the Baltimore Sun wrote that "Alexandria seemed to be rivaling Chicago in the number of its municipal imbroglios." The conflicts likely reflected the waning of the influence of the local Republican Party and arguments over the proper means of compensating the mayor.

Virginia was "readmitted" to the Union with the adoption of a new state constitution in 1869. On January 26, 1870, Federal military rule came to an end in Alexandria and civilian control was re-established. By the terms of the constitution, Alexandria and every political entity within the Commonwealth with a population of 10,000 or over became an independent city. It also established a public school system-racially segregated, of course. The City took over the two former Freedmen's Bureau schools for use as grammar schools for black boys and girls.

The first municipal election held under the new constitution occurred on May 25, 1870. Former mayor Hugh Latham was the standard bearer for the Conservative Party, while William Berkley, who had been a staunch unionist, was picked by the Republican party as their nominee. The election was described as "one of the quietest ever held in this city." Latham received 1,472 votes to Berkley's 1405. [Gazette 5/25/1870 and 6/22/1870] Rev. George Parker, the African American pastor of the Third Baptist Church, became the first black man to be elected to Alexandria's City Council. T.B. Pinn, another African American, was elected magistrate during the contest.

In 1871, the Conservative party again emerged victorious and retained control of the city despite efforts by African Americans and white Republicans to create a permanent bloc in opposition. [Alexandria Gazette 5/9/1871 and 5/11/1871].

Latham was defeated by arch rival William Berkeley by 87 votes in 1872, despite Latham's central role in quelling a riot by visiting Washingtonians that year. The Conservative Party, however, maintained control of the Common Council and the Board of Aldermen. And Berkley would turn out to be the last Republican to hold the office of mayor. Again, the election was notable because prominent builder John A. Seaton won a seat on the Board of Aldermen, thus becoming Alexandria's first black member of that political body.

The Social Scene

Post-bellum white Alexandrians honored their past by honoring the towering figures of their history. In October 1870, Alexandrians grieved over the death of Robert E. Lee. Never, since General Washington died, has any death produced, in this city, such manifestations of universal regret as that of General Lee. All the Corporation offices, the Gazette office, the telegraph offices, Adam's express office, nearly all the stores on King Street, and many residences are draped in mourning, the flags of the steamers and shipping in port are flying at half mast and the bells of the city are tolled at interval. [Alexandria Gazette 10/14/1870]

And, speaking of George Washington, the city reinstituted celebration of the first president's birth in 1873 – an event which had not been commemorated since the beginning of the war. The mayor issued a proclamation requesting that all businesses close in recognition of the day.

Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederacy, made a sojourn to Alexandria on October 4, 1872. Lodged at the Mansion House Hotel, he received many callers, friends and admirers.

A Place in Time

Perhaps, the most handsome edifice erected in Alexandria during the post Civil War era was the Corn Exchange Building at 100 King Street. This beautiful Italianate structure was designed by Benjamin Franklin Price in 1871. Finished by January 1872, the first floor was leased to a grocer. The second-story hall, "used by the Alexandria Exchange was 25 feet high with a gallery and an arched ceiling, beautifully ornamented. The brickwork contributes to the character of the building and monumental attached columns suggested in brick, support a paneled and bracketed cornice." [Penny Morrill, Who Built Alexandria?]

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.