Alexandria shaped by shipping
This graphic headed the Alexandria Gazette column on Ship News in 1811. On Thursday, January 16 at 7:30 P.M. Dr. Stephen Potter will talk about "Iron Men and Iron Rails," an Alexandria Seaport Foundation lecture at The Lyceum, 201 South Washington St.
The new year brings a natural dichotomy as we think about the past and the future. We take stock of life as we acknowledge the passing of what we cherish and prepare for what still awaits us. For many of us, 1996 ended with a very final loss of a cherished landmark. The schooner Alexandria, the three-masted tall ship which graced our waterfront for 13 years, was sold and then lost at sea.
On December 9, the Alexandria sank 50 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras in 45 knot gale winds leaving the crew stranded in the icy waters. Two crew members actually had to survive in 12 foot waves for 5 hours before their rescue. The two dogs on board never were seen again.
As the news passed by word of mouth around town, everyone was stunned. Perhaps others had accepted her sale by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation to a private party, but I really expected her to sail back into our port again. Surely, I reasoned, someone would gather together the approximately one million dollars needed to restore her. When Roy Voegeli rushed into the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and announced that she was leaving, I grab the camera and ran out to say goodbye.
The mood on board those final moments before the Alexandria set sale was festive. I tried to snap a few photographs of the new owner, Yale Iverson, but there was a great hurry to start down the Potomac. I jumped off quickly and stood in the park looking at her the last time. I had always appreciated her beauty, age and lovely wood. Not a sailor, I had to value her aesthetically as an artifact and for her impact upon Alexandria’s waterfront. Studying the port’s activities in the 18th and 19th century has given me a deep sense of how Alexandria’s character and landscape have been shaped by ships and international trade. The Alexandria was a real and symbolic link with this past.
I chose to accept her departure philosophically that day. I reasoned that the Seaport Foundation was already developing plans for building a new schooner which had historical significance for Alexandria. The act of building the schooner here could heighten community involvement and pride while educating everyone about maritime construction and technology. And besides, I thought to myself, the new owner was from Iowa. Surely the Alexandria could be entrusted to a Hawkeye. Seven years of graduate school, and my mother’s family history, had taught me that Iowans were trustworthy, sincere, straight forward and hardworking. I walked back to my office looking toward the future.
The Alexandria is underwater now, an archaeological site in the making. Ship graveyards yield exciting and complete archaeological knowledge about the past. Often the wood, metal, textiles, glass and ceramics are well preserved and await discovery. Perhaps she will once again be seen by others as they explore her years from now. We can turn our eyes toward the Seaport Foundation’s work in boat building and educating youth, as well as the lecture series at the Lyceum and oral history program.
We can also focus upon knowing more about our maritime past. There is a vast amount of information available, but often unstudied, about Alexandria’s port, ships, captains, crews, trade connections, cargo and shipwrecks. Alexandria Archaeology volunteer Michael Carter’s study of the Alexandria Gazette’s ship news has yielded fascinating data. For instance, Michael has discovered that just like the Alexandria sailing from here in 1996, ships went aground in the river.
On March 26, 1811, the schooner "Madisonian was aground in the Potomac" returning from Barbados after departing Alexandria March 9. The Gazette went on to report that "we are happy to learn there is every probability she will be got off without much damage as the schooner Albert Gallatin was along side lighting her, and by whose assistance it was supposed she would get off." She arrived in port three days later, unlike the Alexandria.
Next week I will bring you some of our what Michael has "dug up" from the microfilm at the Alexandria Library Lloyd House. For information about the Seaport Foundation activities, call 703-549-7078.