Last December, I visited a long dead port in Alexandria.
I noticed that Old Town Alexandria was a sizable grid when in my first semester at Virginia Tech. The distance between the metro station and the grad school was a fairly long walk down brick sidewalks. Brick sidewalks can be a horrible substrate,especially at night. The first time I visited this campus, 3 years ago, I got seriously lost. Interrupting this grid near the metro station are three diagonal roads, Daingerfield, Peyton, and Commerce. At night, Daingerfield looked like a shortcut, but it was actually a huge derail. The diagonal cut unexpectedly across the grid.
I wondered why, on the cold ride back home after my missed appointment, these diagonal roads interrupted the orderly grid of Alexandria. Looking at a map of this, I saw that all the roads led to the corner of Duke Street and a trickling stream called Hooff’s Run. I’m already fond of Duke Street, as a turnpike built in 1804 straight through Fairfax and onward to a mill at the Little River in Aldie. Was there a port at Duke Street at Hooff’s Run?
There was a port at this intersection, but I could not find any photographic or pictorial documentation of that fact. This might be because the port was in use before record keeping, mapping, or photography was really in place. Accounts from the late 1800s tell of “old-timers” remembering skiffs coming up Hooff’s run, dropping off oysters and picking up flour. A successful tannery operated near this intersection between 1796 and 1853, and Hooff’s run may have been their primary mode of importing hides and exporting leather for at least the first decade of operations. To join the 19th century, Alexandria built a railroad from its port n the Potomac to points west, starting in 1848. This eventually extended 90 miles to the Appalachian foothills Much of this alignment has been lost, but a stone bridge over Hooff’s run may be a 160 year-old remnant of that project.
But how large was the port? No idea. But it was big enough to support three roads being built directly to it, probably at the same time that Alexandria was first laid out in the 1740s. The roads to the West End and Hooff’s run were beyond the edge of ton, but important enough to keep.
Cameron Run, which Hooff’s run feeds on its way to the Potomac, was once much wider and navigable than it is today. Much of it in Alexandria is little ore than a floodway, armored against rainwater from 42 square miles of suburbia. I was privy to a study of the sediment and development history of Cameron Run back in 2007. One of the studies findings was that vegetation was buried over ten feet under Cameron Run’s current river bottom. All covered over with several centuries of sand eroded from the developing agricultural watershed.