Posts Tagged ‘Old Town Alexandria’

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Jones Point Lighthouse

Stretching for seventeen miles along the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, from George Washington’s historic family home to the city of Washington, D.C., the Mount Vernon Trail has as much history per mile as just about any other trail in the entire country. And one of the often overlooked highlights along the trail is the Jones Point Lighthouse, which is located on a short peninsula of land just south of Old Town Alexandria, directly west across the river from National Harbor on the Maryland shore, and immediately north of the confluence of Hunting Creek and the Potomac River (MAP) in Jones Point Park.  It was this lighthouse that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

In August of 1852, the United States Lighthouse Board received a Congressional appropriation to purchase land and construct a lighthouse at Jones Point. Three years later, the money was used to purchase a narrow tract of land, measuring only 30 by 100 feet, from the Manassas Gap Railroad Company.  The building was constructed in 1855, and the Jones Point Lighthouse was first lit on May 3, 1856.  The lighthouse consisted of a small, one-story, four-room house with a lantern on top that contained a fifth order Fresnel lens, the most advanced lens technology available in the 1800’s.  The lens produced a light beam which could be seen nine miles away.  The light was designed to function as a navigational aid to help ships avoid shifting underwater shoals on the river, and originally served primarily naval ships approaching the Washington Navy Yard, as well as the numerous merchant, passenger, fishing ships traveling into Alexandria, which was at the time was one of the largest centers for shipping, manufacturing, and transportation in the nation.

In 1918 a massive shipyard was constructed at Jones Point to build ships for World War I. As a result, the lighthouse’s beacon light was obscured, making it less useful as a navigational aid. It continued to function in its diminished capacity for a few more years, but was eventually discontinued in 1926, and replaced by a small steel skeletal tower located nearby with an automated light to cut the costs of a manned lighthouse. After being discontinued, the house and property were deeded to the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which maintained the structure as a museum. Then a decade later, in 1936, the Army Signal Corps built a classified communication facility on the former shipyard and closed it to the public. At that time the Jones Point Light went dark, and would remain so for more than half a century.

Although the lighthouse was now closed, the Army reopened Jones Point to the public in 1953. But by that time there was significant damage to the lighthouse from weather, tides, and vandalism. Soldiers had even used the building for target practice during World War II. And after the public was allowed to enter Jones Point again, the damage to the lighthouse only got worse, with vandals further defacing the building, looting it for artifacts and materials, and even burning down part of it. At that point the Daughters of the American Revolution, lacking the funds to restore the lighthouse and not wanting the historic structure to end up being completely destroyed, they chose to deed the property back once again to the Federal government.

With the Jones Point Lighthouse back under the ownership and control of the Federal government, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked with the National Park Service to establish a park on the site and restore the lighthouse. In 1964 Jones Point Park opened, and although the restoration of the lighthouse took longer, it was finally relit in 1995. Today the Jones Point Light is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only a few remaining riverine lighthouses in the entire country, and it is the last one remaining in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Although it is only a short distance from D.C., the feeling of stepping back in time makes the Jones Point Lighthouse seem much further away.  So even though it was only a lunchtime trip, it seemed like I travelled much, much further.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

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L’Hermione

For today’s bike ride I decided to go across the Potomac River to the waterfront in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria. I chose that destination so I could see a ship docked there. It is not a modern vessel, like the USS Barry, which is docked at the southwest waterfront here in D.C.   Rather, I went to see a replica of an 18th-century French war ship named L’Hermione, or The Hermione, which is currently visiting the east coast of the United States. It arrived in Alexandria on Wednesday, and today was its last day before continuing on to its next port of call in Annapolis, Maryland. So I rode to Alexandria today to see the majestic vessel because Annapolis is a little too far away for one of my lunchtime rides.

The Hermione set sail from River Charente, in Port des Barques, France, approximately two months ago. The 3,819-mile transatlantic crossing took 27 days, before stopping in the Canary Islands and Bermuda on its way to making landfall at Yorktown, Virginia on June 4th for the first of its iconic stops on a tour of the east coast of the United States. Its next stop, after the opening of The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge to allow the 185-foot tall ship to pass through and sail up the Potomac River, was at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, which is just a few miles south of where it docked today alongside the pier next to The Chart House. Tomorrow it departs for Annapolis, before proceeding on to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, among other cities. It will then head back to France.

The Hermione’s journey began two decades ago, when a small group dreamed of reconstructing a replica of General Marquis de Lafayette’s 18th-century ship called the Hermione, and then sail it to America to commemorate the historic voyage in 1780 that brought General Lafayette to George Washington with news of full French aid in the colonialists cause, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution. Led by author Erik Orsenna and French Association of Hermione-La Fayette President Benedict Donnelly, the long process of conducting feasibility stides and laying out the construction site at Rochefort, in the Cherente-Maritime began. With cannons, approximately 225 different ropes and some 2,600 square yards of linen, the 177 foot-long ship took $27 million and nearly twenty years to complete. With the architects of the ship closely following the information contained in the original ship’s captain logs and manuscripts, as well as exact line drawings from the Hermione’s sister ship, La Concorde, after its capture, and since stored in the British Admiralty, the completed L’ Hermione is a near exact replica of its namesake.

The ship was initially launched in 2012, with its masting being completed the following year. Then after a period of sea trials and training, her actual voyage finally began in April, leading to my visit to see her today. Unfortunately, she has sailed on, so I can’t recommend that you go to see The Hermione. But I’m sure glad I did.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

The Shipbuilder

The Shipbuilder

Across the Potomac River, located in Old Town Alexandria’s Waterfront Park, which stretches between Prince and King Streets along the waterfront (MAP), is a statue dedicated to the city’s legacy as a colonial seaport and home to the shipbuilding industry.  Entitled “The Shipbuilder,” the statue was created by a local classical sculptor named Michael Curtis, whose other works can be found in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, The Library of Congress, various museums, and in public buildings throughout the country.  It is intended as a tribute to the craftsmen in the shipbuilding industry, which is considered to have played a vital role in the city’s early development.

The seven-foot-tall bronze statue of a 19th-century shipbuilder stands atop a three-foot carved hexagonal granite plinth.  It specifically depicts a rigger or lineman, although it symbolically represents the more than 30 different trades involved in shipbuilding at that time.  The statue’s rigger is holding what was called a “run around sue” type of rope, and is dressed in clothes representative of that era, which were often made from leftover sail cloth.

The idea for the statue was originally brought forth as part of the city of Alexandria’s 250th Anniversary Celebration in 1999.  It was gifted to the city by The Friends of Public Art for the Year of Celebration, a citizens group interested in promoting Alexandria’s historical heritage as a significant American seaport, and unveiled and dedicated to the city in 2004 by the Alexandria Arts Safari, a nonprofit organization that supports public art, education and history projects.

The warm and pleasant weather typical of the D.C. area at this time of year makes the ride to “Old Town” worthwhile in and of itself, but I suggest a visit to The Shipbuilder, and perhaps lunch in one of the neighborhood’s many excellent eateries, before riding back across the river to D.C.

The Alexandria Spite House

The Alexandria Spite House

A tiny landmark on Queen Street in the Old Town district of Alexandria, Virginia (MAP), the “Hollensbury Spite House” is just a short bike ride over the Potomac River from downtown D.C.

In 1830, John Hollensbury’s home in Alexandria, was one of two homes directly bordering an alleyway.  Annoyed by the amount of horse-drawn wagon traffic, drunken loiterers and other undesirable elements, Hollensbury built a second, small house in the alley just to block access and prevent people from using the alleyway.

Measuring in at a mere 7 feet wide, only about 25 feet deep, and a whopping 325 square feet in two stories, it is more of an enclosed alley than a house.  The brick walls of the older houses on either side form the painted brick walls in the spite house’s living room.  In fact, the spite house living room still has gouges in it from wagon-wheel hubs when it was an  alley.

Another interesting aspect of the house is the cast-iron fire mark on the front.  At the time the house was built, it signified that the owner paid the local fire company to ensure that it would respond to protect the house if it caught fire, or was insured so that the fire company knew they would be rewarded for saving that home.  History records a number of occasions back then when firemen allowed unprotected or uninsured houses to burn.

There are a number of spite houses throughout the country, including the Georgetown spite house in D.C., and the contemporary “Skinny House” in nearby Arlington, but the Hollensbury house is one of the narrowest spite houses still in existence today.