Situated along the Potomac riverfront, this colonial town still retains its 18th century charm. I half-expected to see George Washington and Robert E. Lee, two famous Americans to call Alexandria home, chatting in one of the town's taverns or perusing through one of the many antique shops that line the quaint brick streets.
Alexandria's history begins with Scottish merchants and tobacco. In 1669, the Scotsman John Alexander paid an English ship captain six thousand pounds of tobacco in exchange for the land that would become Alexandria. With the help of Scottish businessmen William Ramsay and John Carlyle, the town of Alexandria was officially established in 1749. Because of its prime waterfront location, Alexandria served as an important export center for flour, hemp, and tobacco throughout the colonial, revolutionary, and Civil War periods. With its bubbling fountains and trees wrapped with white Christmas lights, visitors today would never guess that Alexandria was constantly plagued by war. In fact, the town functioned as a hospital and supply center during the American Revolution. George Washington trained his militia at Market Square in 1754. English generals gathered at John Carlyle's house in 1755 to discuss the French and Indian War. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the town was immediately occupied by Union forces.
Our first stop in this historic town was the Torpedo Factory, a U.S. munitions factory constructed during World War I and used during World War II. Ironically, the former torpedo factory is now a three-story art gallery complete with studios and art demonstrations. One studio featured clay pots with miniature scenes visible only through tiny openings. Another studio displayed enormous stainless steel sculptures. My favorite sculpture: A seven foot steel "bageloid" (the artist's term to describe the sculpture's unique shape) entitled, "Fully Rounded Lust." Very dramatic.
A clogging competition was underway as we exited the Torpedo Factory. Performers decked out in Davy Crockett-style raccoon hats, strips of brightly colored cloth, and jingling bells danced to the tune of a recorder, a piccolo, rain sticks, and an accordion.
Our 6 PM ghost tour, the highlight of the day, mixed historical fact with haunted tales. Sporting a bonnet and a lantern, our guide led us first to the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary shop where Martha Washington requested a bottle of the finest castor oil just days before her death. Our guide proceeded to tell us of two murders that occurred in the shop during a poker game gone awry. Apparently, the noises of the dead hitting the floor have been heard on several occasions by tourists and employees alike. Next, we walked past the peach-colored Athenaeum and stopped at a house that may have hid slaves as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Rumor has it that when a particular closet door is closed, three distinct voices can be heard singing a Negro spiritual. Finally, we paused outside Gadspy's Tavern, where George Washington had his first birthday ball. According to colonial gossip, George Washington's illegitimate child, "the female stranger," may have died in the inn that adjoins the tavern.
At the end of the tour, our guide deposited us at John Carlyle's house to see a re-enactment of his funeral. We paid our respects to Carlyle's family, viewed his 18th century coffin, and grabbed a sprig of rosemary to keep away the evil spirits. At 8 PM, as we walked to the metro to journey back to the 21st century, we observed more people in colonial attire than in present day clothing.
The Rest of the Week at a Glance:
- Carved Obama's face into a pumpkin!
- Watched Halloween for the first time . . .
- Listened to a talk by Stephen J. Hughes (Secret Service Special Agent in Charge), who has protected the Clinton and Bush families