Later generations often benefit from dreamers’ dividends
January 5, 1995
By Pamela J. Cressey
Construction of Keith’s Wharf began in 1785 at the foot of Franklin Street and must have been completed by the time George Gilpin produced this map of “the Town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia” in 1798. The dotted lines depict the southern edge of the District’s original diamond shape, measured from the boundary stone at Jones Point.
The people who built Alexandria over the years were dreamers, just as those building it today are. James Keith and his partners John Harper, Charles Simms and Levin Powell started laying the ground work (quite literally) for their dream 210 years ago in 1785. As I discussed in the last column, these men envisioned a new southern addition to Alexandria which would have a bustling wharf and an urban street pattern. But they had to build it from scratch out of the Potomac River and a rural landscape.
Franklin Street was developed as 100 feet wide, much grander than the standard 66 foot wide streets, to accommodate the expected heavy trade of agricultural goods coming to the wharf from the western hinterlands. Keith and the others had to construct the wharf by cutting down the bank west of Union Street for fill in the new wood wharf. Their intention was to build “commodious piers and docks in front of their wharf for the reception of shipping.”
The 18th century wharves were not flimsy wooden piers, but substantial land for building lots. The partners divided the new wharf lots east of Union Street, which also included a street named Madison. Upon completion, Keith’s Wharf was larger than a 2-acre Alexandria city block.
Did their dream materialize? They created the wharf, but their dreams of active trade between the wharf and their extensive land holdings in western counties never did become an actuality. Keith’s Wharf stayed in a peripheral position to the main economic area between Duke and Oronoco Streets. To some degree the wharf probably lacked use because it was isolated from the mainstream of traffic to its north. (This marina parcel is still the least redeveloped waterfront area.) Union Street south of Wilkes had to be elevated on a causeway and constantly maintained.
Over the years, this wharf and the south side of Alexandria never did become the market center they dreamed of. But did they fail? Their new land on the wharf became the place where many more Alexandrians’ dreams became manifested. The archaeological excavation of Keith’s Wharf, discussed next week, uncovered the tangible remains of those dreams. All our dreams are building for the future. We may be disappointed by the immediate outcome, but we are laying the ground work for the dreams of the future.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist