Discovering the Decades: 1890s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1890s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2020 at 3:00 PM

Points in Time

A small southern town of 14,300 inhabitants in 1890, Alexandria exuded an air of optimism as it entered the last decade of the nineteenth century. Although it was still characterized mainly by its "old fashioned buildings, old fashioned streets and old fashioned pumps," new businesses were astir, and homes were under construction in new suburbs.

The Alexandria Gazette editorialized in February 1890 that

Alexandria has always been known for her conservative policy, rather than for what some term goaheadativeness. [Yet], Alexandria holds her own. Her people may seek their fortunes elsewhere and find them, and records have it that in some time or other drift back. No gigantic enterprises have struck Alexandria lately. Recent industries completed here are the large tannery of Mssrs. C. Smoot and Son which gave employment to upwards of 100 men. It was destroyed by fire last year...but has been improved considerably lately, all the vats being now in use and new machinery is being put up as fast as their needs demand it... Sixty odd men are now employed by this concern...

Some months ago a Board of Trade was formed with a membership of 150... The freight traffic of the Midland road so increased last year as to require the removal of the freight yards... The shipyard has had more work during the month past than for some time... It [is] time for Alexandria to take rank with progressive cities."

Early 1890s industrial construction also included Frederick Paff's Potomac Shoe Company in 1890; the Virginia Glass Company plant on Duke Street in 1893; and a large new brewhouse for the Robert Portner Brewing Company in 1894 – temporarily making it the Southern brewery with the greatest production capacity. Home construction was booming in the new northeast suburbs of Del Ray, Braddock Heights and St. Elmo.

Building in Alexandria and the suburbs since last fall has been steady, and during the year there have been more tenement houses erected for speculative purposes than in any other like period since the Civil War. Rents here are cheaper than in Washington and the cost of living is said to be less. Commutative rates between Alexandria and Washington by train are ten cents each way... Boats run hourly during the day, and there are twenty-four passenger trains on week days.... [Alexandria Gazette]

Some suburban lots which sold for $100 in the spring of 1889 now commanded as much as $300 in February 1890. Business slowed generally as a consequence of the depression which began in 1893.


During the early 1890s, Henry Strauss led the city as mayor. In retrospect, he is perhaps most notable as Alexandria's first Jewish mayor. Many of his efforts were directed toward the improvement of the city's infrastructure, appearance and safety, including the paving of streets, the construction of sewers, and the removal of derelict buildings. He also recommended the hiring of more police.

Mr. Strauss's circle of acquaintances was probably larger than that of any other person in Alexandria, and his open, jovial good nature won him many friends. Neither fortune nor position changed his demeanor, and throughout life he was the same good natured, sympathizing friend to those he deemed worthy of his esteem, and clung to them through evil and good report while his intimates were not the opulent or prominent in this word. There was nothing of the unstable in him... While of Jewish birth and holding to the faith of his fathers, he was peculiarly conservative in his religious views.... [H]e never failed to open his purse for the benefit of any denomination when an appeal was made to them nor did any one needing help apply to him in vain. [Alexandria Gazette 10/10/1908]

Immensely popular and heading the nearly unbeatable Democratic ticket, Strauss was unopposed in his 1893 re-election bid. The conservative and Democratic Alexandria Gazette recorded that the contest was one of the quietest hereabouts for many years-in fact, it is safe to say that some people didn't know it was in progress. It was a model election and should those to follow be on the same order they would prove very satisfactory to all sober minded people [a remarkable statement for an ostensibly representative democracy!].... The Democratic ticket with but a single exception was elected.... Paul R. Evans, Independent, defeating Capt. R.F. Knox for the Common Council in the Fourth ward.... Evans is a Republican but not of the radical class and he has many personal friends in both parties. [Alexandria Gazette 5/26/1893]

With the Democratic lock on the city's political leadership, most of the wrangling and most of the attention belonged to the Democratic primaries. Some were quite hotly contested. Yet each election, the Republicans and Independents, if they put forth candidates at all, were soundly defeated. Dissatisfied with the weakness, factionalism and self-interest of the local Republican Party machinery, Alexandria's African American community called a conference of leading black politicians at Mount Olivet Church in 1893. At this meeting a "series of resolutions were adopted denouncing...the present Republican city organization as inimical to the interest of the colored voters; also that those present were averse to taking any part with the populists in the coming mayoral election." [Alexandria Gazette 10/2/1893]

Among the concerns of African Americans was undoubtedly the horrifying frequency of lynchings in Virginia and around the country. In Alexandria, there is documentation of the lynching of two individuals Joseph McCoy (April 23, 1897) and Benjamin Thomas (August 8, 1899). Between 1882 and 1968, 100 Virginians, including at least 11 in Northern Virginia, were lynched. The lynchings were among 4,743 reported nationwide during the same period. Lynching was never a federal offense. 

African American activism led, in 1897, to the announcement of Alexandria's first African American mayoral candidate. The Alexandria Gazette of April 9, 1897 announced that "William Coleman, colored had filed a notice with the clerk of the court that he will be a candidate for Mayor..."

The incumbent, Luther H. Thompson, was opposed by both Coleman and former policeman, Gilbert Simpson. Simpson was bitter over supposed political machinations which had led to his being put off the force. Still, he claimed, "This city never had a better and more conscientious servant than I proved to be. I would rather be elected Mayor of Alexandria this time than to be President of the United States for the next ten years." [Alexandria Gazette 5/19/1897] Gilbert Simpson's candidacy was marred by an King Street altercation with former mayor, J.T. Beckham. Beckham was "roughly handled," and the police arrested Simpson. "The affair caused much comment and when the Police Court was called to order a crowd assembled to witness the trial." The charges were later dropped and the disturbance amicably adjusted. [Alexandria Gazette 4/12/1897]

The general election was another complete sweep for the Democratic ticket. George L. Simpson received 1,633 votes; Gilbert Simpson polled 162 votes, and William C. Coleman garnered only 22 votes. [Alexandria Gazette 5/28/1897]

The Spanish-American War

U.S.-Spanish relations deteriorated during the ongoing struggle by Cubans for independence. Fueled by often sensationalistic newspaper reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, the old cries for the southward expansion of American territory were again heard, this time promoted mainly by the Republican Party. These issues came to a head in February 1898 when the U.S. accused Spain of sinking the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor. John Bell, an African American former resident of Alexandria, was one of the 252 sailors killed in the terrible explosion. [Alexandria Gazette 2/18/1898]

The career of John Bell deserves more than a mention. He probably served as a servant to a naval officer during the Civil War. He officially joined the Navy in 1871. Two of the ships he served upon were the U.S.S. St. Louis and the U.S.S. Lancaster. It appears that he served as the captain's steward in each instance, including aboard the Maine. Anecdotes suggest that Bell wielded considerable influence with his captains, and often interceded on the behalf of sailors. He also eased the harshness of life at sea by supplementing the poor diet of the men with leftovers from the officers' mess. Overseas, Bell made frequent visits to the graves of American sailors. [Patrick McSherry, "John R. Bell, Steward, Battleship Maine, The Spanish-American War Centennial Website]

Once, Steward Bell had commented "I shall never die ashore. I'll be buried deep in the sea I love, in clean water".... In 1912, when the Maine's wreckage was dewatered, and the vessel's stern refloated, amidst the carnage of the wreck was found a watch. It was inscribed "John R. Bell"... John Bell's prediction had come true.... After the battleship Maine was lost in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, requests poured in from all quarters for information about [men] who served on the ill-fated ship.... [The Maine's chaplain John] Chidwick noted that of all of the crewmen on the Maine, more requests concerning the welfare of John Bell came to him than concerning any other crewman.... What caused so many people to inquire about Bell was simple. It was his kindness to everyone who strode the same deck as he. [Patrick McSherry, "John R. Bell, Steward, Battleship Maine, The Spanish-American War Centennial Website]

Under intense pressure to liberate Cuba and avenge the destruction of the Maine, President McKinley requested a declaration of war which Congress passed on April 21, 1898. McKinley then called for 125,000 volunteers. The federal government requested that the State of Virginia raise three regiments of infantry to serve in the volunteer army, and Virginia Governor J. Hoge Tyler notified all volunteer military organizations in the state to be prepared for active duty.

On May 14, 1898, a large crowd gathered in Alexandria to pay their farewells to the Alexandria Light Infantry (formed in 1878) as it heeded the call to arms, marched up King Street from Armory Hall and boarded a train headed for training camps in Richmond. "Mothers amid sobs bade a last farewell to their sons and men with choked emotions shook hands with them and wished them God's speed." One hundred four men strong, the Light Infantry and a field band entered service as Company F of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment. "No man can point the finger of scorn at us and call us cowards. Rather a thousand times would we die than go back home until the war is over. We are Virginians before anything else. No one shall say we Virginians did not do our duty." [Alexandria Gazette 5/21/1898]

Most white Alexandrians were sent to train at Camp Alger, near Falls Church, or to Camp Lee, adjacent to Petersburg. The raw recruits complained about the monotony, poor food and hardships of camp life. A soldier at Camp Lee wrote: "The food is horrible. We were almost starved. The bill of fare on Saturday was sardines, cheese, pickles, bad bread and coffee.... Duties will commence in real earnest in a few days. We elected officers this morning and will probably be examined tomorrow. We sleep on benches in the Fair building. Reveille sounded at 6 o'clock, lights are out at 9 o’clock... The cream of Virginia is represented here as well as some of the worst... I would like to see the old town once more before going to Cuba. I see the boys have not forgotten their promises to their mothers, wives and sisters, as they read their Bibles before breakfast and then write home. On June 21, 1898, 3,000 troops from Camp Alger were conveyed to the Alexandria harbor and transported down the Potomac to Old Point Comfort and Hampton Roads. The majority of Alexandrians in the 3rd Virginia regiment remained at Camp Alger because they had not been armed or equipped and yet had no battalion or regimental drills. They were later moved to a site at Dunn Loring, nearer to a railroad line and adequate supplies of water. Because of the swift U.S. victory, they were released from duty on August 29 and formally mustered out October 10. [Alexandria Gazette 5/19/1898, 5/21/1898, 6/22/1898 and 10/10/1898]

A greater proportion of Alexandria's African American community served in the war and got somewhat closer to the fighting. An 80-man company of black soldiers left the city for basic training in Georgia on July 7, 1898. "A brass band at the head of the company as it passed through the streets to the depot drew immensely." Crowds of African American residents gathered along the track and saluted the company as the train pulled out. At least one of the volunteers, Joseph Tibbs, is buried in Alexandria National Cemetery. [Alexandria Gazette 7/7/1898]

Many other troops passed through the city during those days. Some, ill fed, were even taken into the homes of citizens. In July 1898, arrangements were made in Alexandria to open a soldier's rest camp at the old Armory Hall building on the 200 block of South Royal Street. Here soldiers were served lunch through the efforts the Ladies Relief Association [Alexandria Gazette 7/25/1898]

By the time a formal peace treaty had been signed between Spain and the United States at Paris France on December 11, 1898, few Alexandrians had actually seen any combat. General Fitzhugh Lee – born at Clermont Plantation in 1835, formerly a commander of Confederate Cavalry, married at the Lyceum, and later one of Virginia's most popular Governors (1886-1890)-served as U.S. consul to Cuba prior to the conflict. As such, Lee was intimately involved in the diplomatic machinations between Spain and U.S. When war erupted in the spring of 1898, Lee enlisted in the army and was made a Major General of U.S. Volunteers. After the war, he commanded an army of occupation at Havana.

The 150th Birthday Celebration

Alexandrians ended the decade celebrating the city's sesquicentennial on October 12, 1899. Practically the entire city plus thousands of visitors enjoyed a lavish parade. 


Perhaps Alexandria's finest example of Queen Anne/Free Classic Revival residential is the French-Lawler House at 517 South Washington Street. Constructed about 1890, the masonry structure exhibits a melding of medieval massing with neoclassical detail which was quite fashionable at the time. Now occupied by a business, the structure still stands and has recently been nicely restored.

The fascination with all things colonial was at a peak. The interior of the venerable Christ Church, completed in 1773, was remodeled ca. 1893 to more nearly match its original appearance. Among other changes, the color scheme was altered, and Victorian gasoliers were removed. The architect was Glenn Brown, later Secretary of the American Institute of Architects. Brown, a former assistant of Henry Hobson Richardson, also designed the Richardsonian Romanesque Muir House at 228 North Columbus Street and made detailed drawings of the interior of Gadsby's Tavern.

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.