Discovering the Decades: 1880s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1880s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Oct 30, 2020 at 9:52 AM

Points in Time

In the years following the great Centennial Exposition, Americans took a renewed interest in all things "Colonial" or "Early American." Unfortunately for the ever-hopeful and oft-disappointed boosters within Alexandria's business community, the city had now come to be seen as such a quaint antique. An essay in the February 1881 Scribner's Monthly Magazine characterized the way many outsiders perceived the city.

Seen from the river, [it] presents an appearance at once striking...plank roofs, gabled, hipped, and gambreled, their shingles, which were laid before the century was born, now warped and moss grown, are pierced by innumerable [chimneys].... With its iron-stained, dark red brick walls, the place looks dim and rusty. The town, stretching up and back from the river shore which is bordered by a fringe of rotting wharves, makes, with its queer gables and chimneys showing themselves among the sycamores and lindens, exceedingly picturesque and artistic sky-lines. The low lap, lap of the water among the stones and timbers with the sun of the high noon shining strongly over all, suggests that the place has fallen asleep and will now not awaken, but will die as it sleeps-peacefully. Alexandria, though dead commercially, harbors a genial life, which retains much warm cordiality and quiet, unostentatious, hereditary refinement.... (T. Michael Miller, ed., Pen Portraits of Alexandria, Virginia, 1739-1900)

There is no doubt that it was picturesque. "[H]istoric old town Alexandria is just now a picture of springtime beauty. Washington Street is a veritable bower of beauty. Nearly two miles long and quite 100 feet wide, with pretty, clean brick residences, many of them of colonial type, on either side, yards of the greenest grass and rows of maple, elm and sycamore up and down their branches almost meeting in the middle arch like, it reminds one of some great cathedral." (from the Washington Republican, reprinted in the Alexandria Gazette 5/3/1888)

The city did progress, but the changes were almost imperceptible when contrasted with the muscle of the big cities in the flower of the Industrial Revolution. One measure of Alexandria's situation is population. Numbering only 13,570 residents in 1870, the city's population grew only by only 89 individuals by 1880 and by 680-to 14,339-between 1880 and 1890. Greener pastures, both literally and figuratively, led many residents West and discouraged the arrival of the numbers of immigrants which flooded many East Coast cities. Alexandria was further overshadowed by its neighbors, Baltimore and Washington-although Washingtonians were also realizing that the capital would never become an important industrial center.

Alexandria's economy was sleepy, but not dead. "During the 1880s Alexandria began to acquire modern conveniences with the introduction of the telephone in 1881, rural free mail delivery in 1887 and electricity by 1889." (Smith and Miller, Seaport Saga) With the advent of mail delivery, the street numbering system was changed to the present method of assigning a sequence of hundreds to each block in Old Town beginning with 100 for the first block (from the river or from King Street), 200 for the second, etc. In 1886 the City Council passed a bill which would exact fines on the owners of cows which roamed at large (and several members favored a similar measure aimed at domesticated geese!). (Alexandria Gazette 2/10/1886) During the same year, sanitation throughout the city was improved as workmen began installing new sewers built of heavy oak timber. In 1880, three years after the end of a major national depression, Councilman Isaac Eichberg commented that "[Alexandria] was in a better condition than it had been for the past 12 or 15 years." (Alexandria Gazette 5/26/1880) The largest employers were foundries, shipyards, a brewery, a cracker factory, a shoe factory, brick manufacturers, and lumber and coal dealers.

Success was in the air on July 21, 1883, when the J.P. Agnew and Company shipyard launched the four-masted schooner William T. Hart, the largest ship ever constructed in Alexandria. It was a gala day as hundreds flocked to Windmill Hill (500 block of South Lee Street) to see such "a huge specimen of marine architecture consigned to the water." Not long thereafter, however, the Maine men who owned most of the shipyard came to the realization that ship construction here was not economically feasible, since most of the fittings had to be manufactured elsewhere and shipped to Alexandria. So they returned home, bringing the era of wooden shipbuilding in Alexandria to an end. (Smith and Miller, Seaport Saga)

Smaller-scale marine transport also hit the rocks. In 1887, the Alexandria Canal failed after a long history of financial troubles. "[R]eopened [after the war, it] never achieved anticipated profitability, and the town, which had invested heavily in the canal's construction, was saddled with an enormous debt which cast a pall over its economic recovery. The use of the canal was abandoned in 1887." (Smith and Miller, Seaport Saga) Alexandria's port also suffered considerable damage when a massive 1889 flood inundated its wharves and waterfront. "All along the Strand from the lower shipyard [at Franklin Street] to the American Coal wharves [at First Street] several feet of water were on the first floors of every building, while Union Street from Prince to the cove above Fishtown was an unbroken canal, suggestive of a scene in Venice, lacking only the gondola to enable one to imagine himself in the city of the Adriatic.... The scene attracted nearly everybody in town to the river front..." (Alexandria Gazette 6/3/1889)

Social and Cultural Life

The decade opened with a celebration. On March 9, 1880, Alexandria's City Council sponsored a special gala to celebrate the centennial of the town's incorporation. Newspaper journalist William F. Carne, Alexandria's Herodotus, orated on the occasion, chronicling the events of the century past. There were many other social gatherings and happenings, of course. In January 1880, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show made quite an impression as the troupe performed equestrian maneuvers and depicted an "Old" West which was already vanishing. (Alexandria Gazette 1/22/1880)

At the height of the Victorian era, vices and values were at the heart of Alexandria politics. In May 1886, City Council considered a petition of the city's ministerial association protesting gambling in town. Possible temperance or Prohibition legislation was a dominant issue of the 1881 local elections. The temperance society argued that if bars were outlawed, an influx of families would migrate to Alexandria to escape the deleterious consequences of alcohol. A.C. Harmon, a Quaker merchant who operated a store on the northeast corner of Prince and Royal Streets, was the candidate of the "Temperance Ticket." (Alexandria Gazette 5/7/1881) He was opposed by Board of Aldermen James T. Beckham, the standard bearer of the regular Democratic Party. The Democrats swept the elections in a landslide. "[E]very nominee of the regular Democratic ticket, from mayor to constable, was elected by a flattering majority. As soon as the polls closed...bon fires were lighted all over the city and there was great rejoicing over the victory. Men on the streets declared that Alexandria had rid herself of another ism...." (Alexandria Gazette 5/27/1881)

In response to concerns expressed about local saloons, however, City Council passed "Blue laws" in May 1881, calling for the better observance of the Christian Sabbath – specifying that the sale of all intoxicating liquors, tobacco, cigars, or other articles of merchandise be prohibited on Sundays. (Alexandria Gazette 5/11/1881) As a result, "The Egyptians of Alexandria are now compelled to go to Washington to get their beer of a Sunday..." (Alexandria Gazette 5/17/1881)

But the resounding rejection of a near-Prohibition showed that the city still had enough "gaming men." Certain residents bemoaned the loss of an "Old Landmark" located on the north side of Duke between Fairfax and Royal St. in June 1886. "Fifty years ago a respected Black man named John West kept a house of private entertainment in the neighborhood which was patronized by the most prominent citizens." (Alexandria Gazette 6/2/1886)


As in 1881, the election of 1883 was a Democratic landslide. The Democrats were firmly in control of the city government, as they would remain for many years. The election of 1885 was notable, however, because of the scare the Democrats received from the narrowness of their victory. John B. Smoot, a prominent Alexandria tanner, was the party's choice for mayor, and it was expected that there would be little opposition in the general election. "That Mr. Smoot will be elected by a good majority there seems little doubt, though Mr. Lucas is making an active personal canvas, and an effort on foot to make this contest one of labor against capital – Mr. Lucas posing as a friend of labor. This silly notion notice may scratch a few foolish voters, but the majority of the men now are too sensible to be caught by such a threadbare argument..." (Alexandria Gazette 5/7/1885) Apparently, Mr. Lucas tapped into underlying discontent among the electorate for he did "scratch more than a few voters" and came within 25 votes of winning the election.

It would be interesting to determine if the populace exercised their franchise according to class interests. It is apparent, however, that Mr. Lucas received the support of Republicans, African Americans and disaffected Democrats. The Alexandria Gazette, the voice of the status quo, charged "that disaffected followers of democratic primary candidates who lost their caucus secretly worked for the defeat of Mr. Smoot."

The assiduity displayed by the so-called independent movement yesterday was stubborn. Every inducement that could be offered the wavering and vacillating was resorted to in order to weaken the democratic ranks and that the would-be Mayor was but the figure head of some more or interested element was a fact patent to all reflecting people. Money, not only during yesterday, but throughout the canvass, was disbursed lavishly, and every species of hypocrisy and fraud used to deceive the ignorant, careless or unwary. A notable instance of the practice of base deception was the distribution of facsimiles of democratic tickets. The tickets in question were gotten up to resemble in every respect those issued by the democrats with but a single exception – Mr. Lucas's name taking the place of Mr. Smoot's.... (Alexandria Gazette 5/29/1885)

Mr. Smoot was sworn into office as Alexandria's forty-ninth mayor on July 1, 1885. During Mayor Smoot's term General U.S. Grant, former President of the U.S. and commander of the Union Armies during the Civil War died in July 1885. Although most Alexandrians had seen Grant as an enemy both martial and political, he had also offered honorable terms to General Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 and had subsequently favored provisions in the 1869 Virginia state constitution which permitted former Confederate soldiers to vote. Alexandrians expressed a degree of sympathy for the Union general. Mayor Smoot called a public meeting at Lannon's Opera House to mark Grant's death. He issued a proclamation which read:

Believing that it is right, and that you are desirous of giving some public expression of your sympathies of the Nation's loss in the death of General Grant, I call upon you to assemble...and there by resolutions or otherwise, to express our feelings of regret at the death of him, who defended the officers and men of the army of Virginia after the surrender, and who permitted separate vote to be taken on certain sections of the State Constitution, thereby securing to us privileges that would have been denied us by others. For these reasons if for no others, it is right that we as Virginians, should give public expressions of our regret at his death.

Evidenced by his vetoes of legislation of certain improvements in the public right-of-ways, Smoot jealously guarded the city's prerogatives vis-a-vis the railroads and individuals. He was comfortably re-elected in 1887. (Alexandria Gazette 12/11/1885 and 4/20/1886) Smoot held many positions of public trust. He was president of the Citizens National Bank, president of the Mount Vernon Avenue Association and a past master of Washington Lodge of Masons. He was described as very sober and conservative in both public and private life. Tragically, while hosting a Christmas party at his 804 Prince Street home on December 25, 1887, Mayor Smoot suffered a heart attack and died. (Alexandria Gazette 11/30/1887 and 1/2/1887).

Following Smoot's sudden death, the Board of Aldermen met on December 30, 1887, to pick an interim chief executive. After six ballots, E.E. Downham – a former distillery owner, board member of the German Co-Operative Building Association, councilman for sixteen years, alderman for a decade, and occupant of what is now known as the Lee-Fendall House – was appointed mayor. (Alexandria Gazette 1/2/1887) He remained in office after 1889, when he was elected by the city's voters.


The Mushbach House at 418 North Washington Street was constructed by William F. Vincent in 1886, apparently copying Stanford White-Design's Casino at Short Hills, New Jersey. The owner, George A. Mushbach, was a prominent attorney who served in the Virginia General Assembly and the State Senate. Unfortunately, this distinctive and eccentric "Queen Anne" edifice with its tower and triangular gabled roof was razed in the early 1980s. Its destruction led to changes in local preservation laws. Since then, all demolitions in the historic districts have required prior clearance from the Boards of Architectural Review. (Penny Morrill, Who Built Alexandria)

A Place in Time

To commemorate the sacrifices made by Alexandrians in support of the Confederacy, in 1885, Edgar Warfield, a former private of the 17th Virginia Regiment, proposed to the Robert E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans that a monument be erected honoring the town's Confederate dead. When the well-known Southern artist John A. Elder of Fredericksburg, Virginia heard of the proposed memorial, he submitted a clay model of the figure in his painting “Appomattox," which was promptly accepted as the design. Elder's painting depicted a Confederate soldier viewing the forlorn battlefields of the South after the surrender at Appomattox. In 1888, the R.E. Lee Camp received approval from City Council to place the statue at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets, the point from which the Alexandria troops had mustered and departed the city on the morning of May 24, 1861. On May 24, 1889, Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee, formerly a major general of cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia and a nephew of General Robert E. Lee, spoke to a huge crowd at the dedication ceremony. (Alexandria Gazette 5/25/1889) Since its unveiling, the Confederate monument, whose base is inscribed with the names of Alexandria's war dead, has perpetuated the memory of those one hundred Alexandrians who fought and perished for "The Lost Cause." Facing South, with head bowed, the figure suggests no bitterness or defiance, but only profound grief. For many years the statue served as the focal point for Confederate Memorial Day services.

The statue was removed by the Daughters of the Confederacy in June 2020, during nationwide Black Lives Matters demonstrations and ahead of the new state law allowing localities to remove, relocate or contextualize Confederate monuments within their communities. 

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.