Signs of the Times

Signs of the Times

Lecture about the history of Potomac will preview installation of interpretive plaques.


A 1915 photograph shows a road crew working on a rebuilding effort for Mount Vernon Avenue. The background of the photograph is the approximate modern location of St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub.

Del Ray likes to think of itself as being a progressive enclave of funky bungalows and colorful people — an image that has been carefully crafted over the course of decades by neighborhood advocates and real-estate agents. The roots of Del Ray’s progressive legacy date back to a time before the neighborhood was even part of Alexandria, beginning as an effort to shut down an infamous gambling operation and create a sense of self-rule for residents who had grown frustrated living in an unincorporated area of Arlington County. After the General Assembly passed an incorporation bill on March 13, 1908, the town government set out to install a modern sewer system that would later serve as a model for other municipalities.

But the progressivism was lily white.

"The Town of Potomac is probably the most progressive, aggressive and bustling community within the State of Virginia," boasted a 1924 yearbook published by the town government. "It is perhaps the only municipality in the United States in which ownership of real estate is limited to persons of the Caucasian race, and it is also the only municipality so far as known, that does not number among its residents persons of African descent."

According to Leland Ness, known in the neighborhood as "the unofficial historian of Del Ray," the progressive nature of Potomac is a window into the early 20th century. While old cities such as Alexandria had wide disparities in race and class, modern progressive municipalities of that era institutionalized racial segregation and limited access to residents of similar economic status. As a result, Ness said, the town of Potomac gained a reputation as being a progressive town.

"They apparently saw no irony in being progressive and racist," said Ness. "We was a time when being racially segregated was viewed as a progressive goal."

AS DEL RAY CELEBRATES its 100th birthday this year, neighborhood residents are busy putting together a series of events to mark the occasion. Ness will be delivering a centennial lecture at the Lyceum on March 26 at 7:30 p.m., and he has written text for seven historical markers that will be unveiled at the Del Ray Farmer’s Market Oxford Avenue and Mount Vernon Avenue during an 8:30 a.m. ceremony on April 12.

"The interpretive signs are going to show some history that’s been missing from Del Ray," said Pat Miller, who is chairwoman of the Potomac Centennial Committee. "They bring the history together at all our key locations."

The signs cover a wide variety of life in Potomac, everything from education and government to commerce and that infamous race track that led to the creation of a town government. Ness said that the history of the Alexandria Gentleman’s Driving Club — later known as St. Asaph’s Racetrack and Gambling House — was one of the most fascinating aspects of the history he uncovered during his years of research on the history of Potomac. It was built in 1895, although the General Assembly outlawed betting on horse racing a few years later in 1897.

"Horse racing was the least of their problems," said Ness. "The problem was all the other things that went along with horse racing."

Telegraph wires allowed bookies to take wagers on horse races outside of Virginia in exchanges that were described as "wire transfers." The operation attracted other unsavory characters into the area to engage in card games and prostitution, creating a sense of lawlessness between the quiet neighborhoods of St. Elmo and Del Ray. Homeowners supported a crusading prosecutor who challenged the owners in court. Commonwealth’s Attorney Crandal Mackey was narrowly elected in 1903 on a vote of 323 to 321, and he immediately set his sights on cleaning up St. Asaph’s Racetrack.

"Up until a few days ago, I would have called him the Eliot Spitzer of Virginia," cracked Ness. "But I guess that’s no longer appropriate."

MACKEY’S CRUSADE against the racetrack included several raids and accusations that government officials regularly accepted bribes to prevent a crackdown against illegal behavior at the racetrack. By the time he secured a conviction of a mid-level employee at the operation, the owners could see the handwriting on the wall and shut the operation down. Meanwhile the Good Citizens League began a lobbying campaign in Richmond for an incorporation bill that was finalized in 1904.

"The local people saw what could happen when they had no control over the police," said Ness. "And that was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the town of Potomac."

Streetlights and sewers were installed, and Potomac boasted the first high school in Arlington County. By 1915,

Alexandria city officials were already trying to acquire the enormous tax revenue from Potomac Yard — one of the largest switching facilities on the East Coast. The effort took more than a decade, although City Hall was eventually successful in its attempt to acquire the town of Potomac in a settlement with Arlington County.

"It took quite a while to figure out who owned what," said Ness. "For example, the firehouse obviously belonged to Alexandria. But what about the fire trucks? The two sides fought over this for some time until a court decided that the trucks belonged to Arlington."