Parking lot is once and future residential site

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Parking lot is once and future residential site

October 13, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Ruth Reeder excavates a part of the Moore-McLean sugar refinery (ca. 1804-1828) while other City volunteers screen the dirt to recover artifacts.
Photo Credit: Alexandria Archaeology.
Another parking lot! That was our thought when the City archaeologists were asked in 1987 whether any significant history might still be buried at the corner of North Alfred and Cameron streets. We knew from long experience with parking lots around Old Town that asphalt is an amazing preservative. There was a high likelihood that important information about our past still survived under this seemingly modern parking lot.

But what might have been here 100 or 200 years ago? The first step in conducting historical archaeology is to examine written and visual records which will tell us about a place and its uses. We consulted one of our best references to historic geography, Historic Alexandria Virginia, Street by Street by Ethelyn Cox. Mrs. Cox had noted that a sugar refinery once was here.

Additional research conducted by volunteer Sara Revis focused on a full chain of title of the deeds, tax assessments, insurance maps, household census rolls, manufacturing census data, diaries, and much more. Sara traveled to Baltimore and Washington D.C. to seek out important documentary clues to this site's development.

Fortunately, the tax collector provided information about the property every year. We can trace its change from a vacant parcel, to a five-story sugar refinery with owner's home, a series of residential structures, and finally a vacant lot for parking. Today the site is under construction returning to its former residential and commercial uses. The site is going around full circle a second time.

After measuring on the parking lot where William Moore's home and refinery were once located, we opened excavation squares as test units. Digging with mason's trowels and shovels we skimmed off the soil in levels. We were looking for any foundation evidence associated with Moore's U-shape wooden house at the corner.

Alas, little was left from this structure. Our excavations continued from 1987 until the summer of 1994 as we explored the site which encompasses almost half of a city block (about an acre). Hundreds of volunteers worked through summer heat, often contributing 150 hours a week.

We were rewarded by the discovery of the refinery foundation, cistern, a series of pipe lines and vats, and thousands of artifacts from the sugar manufacturing period. There was also exciting evidence of the Daniel McLean (second owner of the refinery) home, wells, oyster shell path and 70 foot long brick drain. Historic accounts state that a path led through "spacious gardens" to a turnstile, which gave the family access to Christ Church. McLean later joined a group that split with Christ Church and established St. Paul's on South Pitt. Next week, a look at the artifacts used to make sugar.

Visit the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Torpedo Factory Art Center, during Archaeology Month. Sunday (1-5 P.M.) family activities include washing artifacts and painting stoneware designs. Saturdays, see the Carlyle House excavations. Call 703-838-4399.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.