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The Streets of Old Town

Street names give a glimpse into the early days of Alexandria.

Names that appear on streets signs have lasting value. They appear on maps and enter conversations. They are scrawled on directions and printed on signs. Ultimately, they provide a glimpse into the values of the city’s founders — showing us the issues and personalities that were prevalent in their society.

"The town of Alexandria had the distinct advantage of having been surveyed and laid out before there were any dwellings or places of business," wrote local historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye in "Alexandria: A Composite History," published in 1972 by the Alexandria Bicentennial Commission "Names in the old port section generally reflect the loyalty of the first residents to the mother country, England."

The city of Alexandria was created by a 1749 act of the General Assembly. At that time, the city was located in Fairfax County — named for the Fairfax family. It was named Alexandria to honor the Alexander family, which owned most of the land where the city was created. The other land was owned by the West family, which was also honored with a street name.

The original design took advantage of the town’s position along the Potomac River, with a partially-submerged street named Water Street. Because his half-brother Lawrence Washington was an original trustee, George Washington took part in the surveying team as a 16-year-old apprentice. The central point of town was intended to be at Fairfax Street and Cameron Street — both of which honor Lord Fairfax, the baron of Cameron. He was one of the first trustees of the city, and his home was located at 607 Cameron Street. As proprietor of the Northern Neck, Lord Fairfax controlled more than 5 million acres between the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River.

Although King Street has evolved to take its place, Cameron Street was designed to be the heart of the city. To the south, Cameron Street was flanked by a royal procession: King, Prince and Duke. To the north was another orderly pageant: Queen, Princess and Duchess.

Later, as tobacco became more important to the early inhabitants of the city, the Duchess Street was renamed Oronoco Street after a variety of tobacco that was grown around the Chesapeake Bay. Oronoco tobacco leaves are bulkier, and they have a stronger flavor than other varieties that were grown in the British colonies at that time. The tobacco inspection warehouse was located at the base of the street, so the constant presence of tobacco along the street caused the name Duchess to give way to Oronoco.

In November 1753, the General Assembly passed an act to enlarge the town. This created two new streets. To the north, the city gained Pitt Street — named after William Pitt the Elder, first earl of Chatham, who was then a rising star in British politics. Pitt was a Whig statesman who achieved his greatest fame as war minister during the French and Indian War. He later served as prime minister of the British Empire from 1766 to 1768.

The other street created in 1753 was Wolfe Street, which was then the south end of town. It was named for Gen. James Wolfe, who established British rule in Canada. He was killed during the French and Indian War in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham — the decisive victory in the war that brought British victory against the French. According to legend, Wolfe lived to hear the cry "They run," and eagerly asked "Who run?" Being told it was the French, he exclaimed, "I thank God, and die contented."

In 1774, St. Asaph Street was named in honor of Jonathan Shipley, bishop of the St. Asaph Cathedral in Wales. As conflict between the colonies and empire grew, the bishop joined the Whig party in opposition to the policies of King George III. In a speech before the British House of Lords, the bishop declared, "My lords, I look upon North America as the only great nursery of freedom now left upon the face of the earth."

During the Revolutionary War, in 1779, the General Assembly incorporated the town. This changed the form of government from a board of trustees to an elected governing body with a mayor and City Council. At this time, two streets were added. To the south, Franklin Street was named to honor American statesman Benjamin Franklin. To the west, Washington Street was named to honor George Washington.

In 1782, as the Revolution was drawing to a close, the city engaged in a public works project using infill to extend the boundary of the city eastward into the Potomac River. Col. George Gilpin was put in charge of a team to start filling in land that eventually created Union Street. This was accomplished by grading Cameron Street from Washington Street to the river, reducing the high bluff from Cameron to the Potomac. In the process, the foundations of several buildings were exposed.

The most noticeable is Wise’s Tavern at 201 North Fairfax Street. This is where Washington was honored April 16, 1789 before being sworn in as president in New York City. Alexandria Mayor Dennis Ramsay (who was mayor from 1789 to 1790 and then again from 1793 to 1794) gave a speech written by Henry Lee that noted, "Our first and best of citizens must leave us; our aged must lose their ornament; our youth their model; our agriculture its improver; our commerce its protector; our poor their benefactor. Farewell! Go, and make grateful people happy, a people who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate this recent sacrifice for their interest."

By 1796, the city of Alexandria had been ceded by Virginia into the District of Columbia — and one street was created to boost the infrastructure in Alexandria, D.C. To the north, Montgomery Street was added to honor Gen. Richard Montgomery. He was the second-ranking brigadier general in the American Revolution who led the invasion of Canada, where he captured two forts and the city of Montreal. On Dec. 31, 1775, he died while attempting to capture Quebec.

This was also the time when several streets were paved with cobblestones, creating the picturesque street scenes that still exist in Old Town. Although local tradition says that the stones were laid by Hessian mercenaries captured during the Revolution, some historians dispute this. Nevertheless, the cobblestone sections of Prince and Princess streets date to the 1790s.

By the time Washington died in 1799, Alexandria had 14 streets running north to south and 20 running east to west. The limits of the town at that time were Franklin on the south, Oronoco on the north, Washington on the west and Union Street on the east.

Today the city has more than 550 streets covering 16 square miles.