Friday, August 19, 2011

A Railroad-Related Site in Old Town Alexandria

Last Sunday while my family and I were visiting friends in Alexandria, I had the opportunity to check out another fascinating Civil War-related site in Old Town. My friend, Dave King, had mentioned the Wilkes Street Tunnel to me on a few occasions. Built in the 1850s, the tunnel connected the Orange & Alexandria Railroad (O&A R.R.) with the wharves and warehouses at the busy port of Alexandria. It is one of two 19th century railroad structures still remaining in Alexandria. The railroad tracks are long gone, but the tunnel has been preserved and is now part of a trail for bicyclists and runners. Dave and I visited the site at the corner of Wilkes and Royal Streets on our way to the main drag on King Street.

Looking down Wilkes Street towards the tunnel.  Note the dark pavement which likely marks the location of the railroad bed that has since been filled in.  (Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of Dave King, who was kind enough to take pictures for me because I was caught without my camera!)
A closer view of the west side of the Wilkes Street Tunnel, showing the descent below street level. 

One of three historical markers on the brick wall leading to the tunnel.  This marker discusses the various Alexandria railroads.  The marker concerning the Wilkes Street Tunnel, including its Civil War history, is faded and barely readable.
A marker showing the U.S. Military Railroad roundhouse in Alexandria, which was actually located at Duke and S. Henry Streets.
The O&A R.R. was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in 1848 in an effort to stimulate trade with western Virginia.  Construction began in 1850, and in May 1851, the railroad christened the Alexandria section of track with an inaugural run between the north end of Union Street to the Wilkes Street Tunnel.  By 1854, the O&A R.R. extended to Gordonsville, Virginia, where it connected with the Virginia Central Railroad.  That same year, the O&A R.R. received permission from the General Assembly to run from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, Virginia.   In 1860, the railroad finally reached Lynchburg, where it joined the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.  The company paid the Virginia Central for the use of track rights between Gordonsville and Charlottesville. 

An even closer view of the opening of the west side of the Wilkes Street Tunnel.

The interior of the Wilkes Street Tunnel. The City of Alexandria refurbished the tunnel in 2007-08 and added the steel beam reinforcements overhead. (See here for more details on the project.)
The O&A R.R. figures prominently in the history of the Civil War. Following the invasion of Virginia in May 1861, the Union seized control of the railroads in Alexandria, including the O&A R.R. The O&A R.R., which generally fell under Federal control close to Washington and north of the Rappahannock River, played a critical role in moving supplies for the Union Army, and Alexandria became the hub. A steady flow of U.S. Military Railroad trains passed through the Wilkes Street Tunnel on their way to and from the wharves along the Potomac. The Confederates controlled and operated other portions of the railroad. During the course of the war, sections of the railroad fell into and out of Union hands, or were abandoned when the armies moved elsewhere. Manassas Junction, where the O&A R.R. and Manassas Gap Railroad met, played a key part in both the First and Second Manassas Campaigns.

The east side of the Wilkes Street Tunnel.

U.S. Military Railroad construction workers in front of the Wilkes Street Tunnel (courtesy of Ft. Ward Museum and Historic Site)

Once again, Alexandria does not disappoint.  What I think is going to be just another run to get ice cream with friends and family, turns into yet another historical discovery.  Although the Wilkes Street Tunnel is a small and out-of-the-way site, it is a place well worth visiting.  Trust me.  You will feel the past all around you as you walk through the tunnel and emerge on the banks of the Potomac.

Note on Sources:

For more information on the early history of the Wilkes Street Tunnel, check out this page from the website of Historic Alexandria.

Alexandria: 1861-1865, in the Images of America Series, by Charles A. Mills and Andrew L. Mills contains many period photographs of the railroad in Alexandria during the Civil War.

Information on the O&A R.R. can be found on this extremely detailed site run out of Northern Virginia Community College.


Steven said...

Great post and photos of the Wilkes Tunnel. Another vestige of the O&A in Alexandria is the stone arched Hoof's Run Bridge. Built in 1856, it is now traversed by Jamieson Avenue.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Steven. I have read about the Hoof's Run Bridge, but have yet to get over that way. I really enjoy uncovering these hidden treasures around here.

Bernie said...

The HAER Made in America web site has architectural drawings of the tunnel.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for the link, Bernie.

Unknown said...

Compare the arches, and the adjacent topography of the laborer photo and the east portal of the Wilkes Street tunnel. They are different.
In the laborer photo, does it look like a railroad track is running straight out of the tunnel?
I think the laborers are standing in front of a bridge over Hoof's Run, with the stream meandering to the right as it exits the arch.
That would make sense, since the iron yard of the USMRR was located near Duke Street and the Hoofs Run bridge.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. You make some interesting observations. However, sources I used in compiling this post identified the photograph as showing the Wilkes St. Tunnel. This website, run by the Alexandria city government, also offers another view of the tunnel which shows the tracks:

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Baumgarten, esq.,
Thanks for sending me on a sentimental journey back to Alexandria. I left around 1956.

You might like
which I am attempting to compare to Google maps of Alexandria. I am guessing that the old railroad cut is now Wilkes Rd. I will try to scale the contemporary to overlay a download of the old. If that works, I'll blog here again.
MS law school dropout

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for your kind words. I am always glad to offer "time travel"!

I didn't realize NOAA had historical maps. Thanks for the link. Please send me a copy of the overlay once you get it put together. I like to see such comparisons of old and new.


P.S. Good move!