Wilkes Street tunnel is important piece of past

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Wilkes Street tunnel is important piece of past

October 19, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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The rail line extending down Wilkes Street went through a long tunnel with walls extending between South Royal and Lee streets, as shown on the 1877 G.M. Hopkins map.

Alexandria's vast railroad system was one of the city's most predominate features in the historic cultural landscape. Today, the rails that have survived are being torn up and consolidated. Only a few structures associated with Alexandria's railroad history have been preserved: the Orange and Alexandria Railroad Bridge over Hooff's Run, the Wilkes Street Tunnel and the Alexandria Union Station.

The Orange and Alexandria Railroad was incorporated in 1848, but service to Culpeper did not begin until 1851. Over the next four years, the rails were extended to Warrenton, Orange, Gordonsville and Lynchburg. James Massey and Jere Gibber note: "At the peak of its activity in 1860, the Orange and Alexandria extended 148 miles and had $7,180,201 of capital. In the decade prior to the Civil War, the railroad greatly improved Alexandria's economic fortunes by diverting trade from other markets and increasing the city's share of interior trade."

Building the rails required money, engineering and labor. T. C. Atkinson was the chief engineer. Two separate construction contracts were awarded. Eggleston, McDonald and Company was responsible for building the 60 miles of rails between Cameron Mills (near the Huntington Metro Station) and Culpeper. These gentlemen apparently came to Alexandria on a temporary basis. The 1850 U.S. census shows that they both lived at the Marshall House Hotel on King and Pitt streets. Eggleston and McDonald were born in New York and were 42 and 55 years old respectively. Presumably they left town soon after, since the firm abandoned its work in November 1850. The O&ARR president, George Smoot, noted in the annual stockholder report that their action caused "a delay and loss of time equal to six months."

The same month, T.C. Atkinson placed a bid notice in the Alexandria Gazette for the city portion of the O&ARR: "The work now to be let embraces about fifty thousand yards of graduation, the Sidewalls and Arching of a Tunnel about 360 feet in length with support walls, bridge and culvert masonry...Bids will be received until the 19th instant. Bidders who are unknown to the undersigned must bring testimonials of character." The firm of Malone and Crockett won the bid. Apparently they satisfied the good character requirement. Samuel Crockett was a 45 year old Irish immigrant who lived in a town with his wife and seven children.

Malone and Crockett moved quickly. By April 14, 1851, the Gazette reported that construction on the tunnel was proceeding "with vigor." Then on May 7, the newspaper announced that "the first locomotive was put upon the track of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad yesterday and in the afternoon steam was got up and the locomotive was run over the line from the north end of Union Street to the tunnel on Wilkes Street." Next week we will look at the tunnel, one of our most significant historic structures.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.