Maps and Miscellany

Ice, Ice, Baby

That’s right – Vanilla Ice knew his Old Town ice houses. There are exactly two ice ice houses in Alexandria, down from dozens across the city at the turn of the 20th century.

Neither are used for storing and selling ice anymore, but this summer, according to Alexandria Living Magazine, a company called Goodie’s Frozen Custard will be moving into the more iconic of Old Town’s two extant ice houses. After 30 years as a plumbing supply shop, and then being abandoned for more than a decade, that ice house will soon host a tenant worthy of the space.

Between 1900 and 1930, ice houses in Alexandria distributed hundreds of thousands of tons of ice annually to the city’s businesses and residents. The increased availability of electricity throughout the city after this period rendered the ice houses obsolete. Most were demo’d to allow the construction of new structures. But two remain standing, albeit used for other purposes.

The more well-known of the two (and the one for which its function is unambiguously broadcast), is located in the southwest quadrant, on the 200 block of Commerce Street (and visible from King):

When one of us was growing up, that ice house was abandoned, and painted a uniform, faded light blue. The “ICE” was visible only as relief on the facade. (BTW, we continue to look for a serigraph of the ice house in this condition by late, local Torpedo Factory artist Clay Huffman, but the search has been fruitless.) About 5 years ago, someone bought ICE house, began restoring it, and applied the new, improved paint scheme. This is the future home of the frozen custard purveyor, fittingly enough.

The other remaining ice house structure lies on the 100 block of South Lee Street:

We run or walk by this place multiple times a week, and only recently realized that it was an ice house. This was the home of the Mutual Ice Company from 1900 to 1937, when it closed due to widespread adoption of electricity for refrigerators and freezers. It’s now home to an architectural firm.

As with the first “ICE” house, the structure on Lee features a shelf on which to place ice blocks during a transaction:

And a pretty impressive, heavy wood insulated door to the ice freezer:

These more recent ice houses have nothing on the grand daddy of them all in Old Town, though – the 18th-century Gatsby’s Tavern ice well. (All of the quoted information below is verbatim from the city’s historical information site here.)

“The Alexandria Common Council granted Wise permission to build an icehouse underneath the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets in 1793 as part of his construction. For the previous four years, Wise had leased the Alexandria Inn and Coffee House at 201 N. Fairfax Street, which included an on-site icehouse. Perhaps this convenience in his earlier ventures convinced Wise of the importance to the hospitality industry of having a regular supply of ice. Wise saw into the future by including this important feature in his designs for Alexandria’s five-star hotel of the 18th century.”

Inscription on the bluestone at the center of the circle on the corner above:

“Ice harvesting was an expensive and time-consuming process. It was cut from the frozen Potomac River in the winter and hauled by cart to the City Tavern for storage.  Once in the well, the ice was formed into a solid mound and covered with straw to preserve it for use through the summer months.  Preserving ice was an on-going challenge in the late 18th century and an expensive venture. Therefore, ice was generally reserved for wealthy estate owners. George Washington records in his journals the trials and tribulations of trying to preserve ice. In Alexandria, many homes had interior ice pits to store small quantities of ice. Those lucky enough to have access to ice used it to chill beverages, preserve perishable foods, and even make a new popular dessert of the day: ice cream. This availability of ice at Gadsby’s Tavern helped to distinguish the establishment as one of the finest of its kind in the 18th century.”

Linked directly to the Tavern basement by a brick-walled and vaulted tunnel, the ice well was also accessed by the tavern staff through a small hatch at street level. The City Tavern’s well is much larger than most urban residential ice wells, measuring over 17 feet in diameter and over 11 feet deep at the lowest excavation point. The well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough to supply the tavern and even the citizens of Alexandria. In 1805, when John Gadsby was leasing the tavern from John Wise, Gadsby advertised the sale of ice from the well, “ICE FOR SALE, Persons may be supplied with ice, at eight cents per pound on application to John Gadsby.”

A view into the ice well:

“The ice well is an important and rare example of a commercial well in an urban environment.  Most ice wells have been lost to “progress” as they have succumbed to office buildings, parking lots, and housing.  Examples still exist at Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, but these were created for private and not commercial use.  Gadsby’s ice well tells the larger story of commerce and the evolution of hospitality.  It is a reminder to modern day travelers and residents of something we take for granted today – a ready supply of ice.”

Stay cool, Old Town.

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Adieu, Appomattox

A Saturday morning quiz: spot the difference between these two pictures

We took the picture on the top a few weeks ago; we took the one on the bottom this past Tuesday.

In light of the ongoing protests throughout the country, the city worked with the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Tuesday morning to remove the Appomattox statue from its plinth at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets. The city had voted several years ago to remove the statue, but were prevented from acting on this by a state law that reserved decisions on Confederate war memorials at the state level. The new legislature that was voted into Richmond during last year’s mid-term elections reversed this policy, enabling municipalities to take the actions they saw fit. In the case of Appomattox, this required working with the monument’s owner, since the statue and plinth are not owned by the city. (The circular patch in the intersection also may be owned by the UDC – we’ve heard this, but haven’t been able to verify it. The city’s GIS parcel viewer does show a little circle at this intersection, while there is none in the other intersections, but there’s not a parcel designation for the circle.)

We previously posted on Alexandria’s Appomattox monument in 2017 after the white supremacist jackassery in Charlottesville.

From this article in the Alexandria Gazette: “Although City Council voted unanimously in 2016 to move the statue to another location, prevailing law at the time required approval from the General Assembly for the relocation of the Appomattox Statue along with other war memorials throughout the state. A bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) earlier this year removed those protections, giving authority over memorials to local jurisdictions. That law goes into effect July 1. ‘We had already coordinated with the UDC and scheduled a date for removal in July,” [Alexandria City Mayor] Wilson said. “They approached the city last night with a request to remove the statue early. That is probably a testament to the moment we are in right now.'”

A closer look:

There was earlier consideration to move Appomattox to the city’s Lyceum museum located on the southwest corner. That no longer appears to be the case and it’s unclear where the statue (and plinth, we assume) will be relocated.

A plaque addressing Appomattox near the Lyceum:

Adieu, Appomattox.

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Trip Planning and Itineraries

We’re about to head out to countries 60 – 64: Qatar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Considering the number of countries and locations on this trip, we’ve been asked multiple times whether we used an adventure travel firm to plan this.

Hell no.

One of the great joys in life is navigating the variables associated with international travel, and bringing order – and a fulfilling itinerary – out of the chaos of infinite options and decision paralysis. For one of us, life exists in an X and Y axis. All information and variables can be accommodated, analyzed, sorted, filtered, and ultimately presented on such a grid.

Specifically, in a spreadsheet.

WolfeStreetTravel runs on Excel.

Logistically, our Christmas Southeast Asia trip (because who doesn’t think of Christmas when one thinks of Cambodia?), has been a complex planning process. But because we’re getting from one place to another by plane, this hasn’t been nearly as much as a challenge as when we’re dealing with trains, planes, automobiles, AND ferries that don’t run every day, as was the case (with the exception of trains) for our foray into Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro more than a dozen years ago.

So, for our Southeast Asia trip, the itinerary has (mostly) been refined and looks like this, in the world of X and Y axes:

Red is travel time, green free time, and blue represents engagements. The yellow layover is a yet to be addressed long – but not really long – layover in Bangkok on the way back.

There’s another tab (two actually – one for planning and one for packing) that contains matrices of hotel choices, activities options, URLs to travel articles, and screenshots of (mostly) flight options and maps. One table, though, really exemplifies our planning for this trip – which locations were served by nonstop flights, versus connections, which dictated where we’d go and the sequence in which we would travel:

Greens are acceptable options, yellow are candidates (but not great), and red are unacceptable. Blue is a critical path item (the only real option if we were to include Ho Chi MInh city with the other locations we had prioritized). NS is nonstop, 1S is one stop, and the numbers are the total flight duration. We determined candidate locations to visit based on travel articles and blogs, but based our final trip on the data in this table.

Previous examples include the only travel agent-planned trip last year in Southern Africa (much simpler, as a result):

And our legendary MicroNations road trip in 2017, where travel time was everything:

Hopefully, our upcoming trip will work out as planned, but now you know how it looks before we leave!

Categories: Maps and Miscellany, Miscellany | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

We Missed a Micronation!

Our friend Bill last night forwarded an article on a micronation previously unknown to us that we totally could have visited during our Tiniest 5 for the Big 5-0 trip in 2017. During that trip, we drove to all five European continental micronations – Vatican City, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and Andorra.

We totally missed the Principality of Seborga!

The micronation (merely self-proclaimed, to be sure) is enclaved within Italy, just like San Marino:

Seborga’s claim that their principality is an independent nation and not a part of Italy is based on a sale document that was never fully executed in 1729:

“Allegedly on 20 January 1729, this independent principality was sold to the Savoy dynasty and became a protectorate of theirs. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna overlooked Seborga in its redistribution of European territories after the Napoleonic Wars, and there is no mention of Seborga in the Act of Unification for the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. . . The argument for Seborga’s present-day status as an independent state is based on the claim that the 1729 sale was never registered by its new owners, resulting in the principality falling into what has been described as a legal twilight zone.”

The principality is not recognized diplomatically, and so does not meet one of the actual micronation definition. However, Seborga does indulge in micronation practices, such as producing their own currency, that we’ve seen in other self-proclaimed tiny countries, like the Republic of Vevčani in North Macedonia, where we began our third day of riding during our Biking the Balkans trip earlier this year.

The micronation also is located in the extreme west of Italy, just ~12 miles from Monaco, so we totally could have visited Seborga in 2017 . . .

A fuller history and an absolutely entertaining read on the Principality of Seborga (and the reigning prince) can be found here, on Vice.

Thanks, Bill, for the great story – we’ll try to drop by the principality the next time we’re in the area!

Categories: Mappy Hour, Maps and Miscellany | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Plantation Ruins Hidden in National Airport’s Parking Garage

We’re still sorting through photos from Morocco, so in the meantime, a quick post closer to home about some nearby history hidden in plain sight.

Within the parking garage at Reagan National Airport just north of Old Town there lies the ruins of a colonial-era plantation connected to George Washington. The ruins are completely enveloped by the parking garage structure, but you can tell where the plantation ruins are as you’re driving by on the parkway by the looking for the trees that appear to grow out of the parking garage roof.

After seeing this for years, and as consummate history dorks, we checked it out.

Abingdon Plantation ruins’ green space within the garage from in a satellite view on Google Maps:

There are a few signs in the Reagan National Airport parking garage leading to the ruins of Abingdon plantation. However, considering that most people parking there need to catch a flight and don’t have time to wander around to see the landmark, we’re no sure how often the spot actually gets visitors.

However, since National Airport is a short bike ride away for us, we rode there on the way to a longer ride up the Capital Crescent Trail to Bethesda for lunch. There’s actually biking infrastructure involving a few paths, a tunnel, and the parking garage that connects National Airport to the Mt. Vernon bike trail next to the parkway. (We have a friend around the corner who used to tow one of his kids in a Burley and bike from Old Town to the National Airport terminal for lunch at Legal Seafoods, which is located outside security. Go figure.)

The first helpful sign in the ground level of the garage near the bike entrance:

Directions to the plantation ruins in the breezeway between the terminal and parking garage:

Entrance sign to the plantation ruins; Parking Garage B is to the right:

The ruins are just up a path:

Remains of the main house with the airport terminal in the background:

Context of the ruins within the airport from signage at the site:

Remains of the kitchen building with Parking Garage C behind it:

Lots o’ signage at the top of the mound, overlooking both the ruins and the terminal:

Layout of the ruins:

Pretty well done historical markers providing the history of the place:

Instead of trying to read the signs, here’s an easier approach – this article on Atlas Obscura (which is an absolutely phenomenal site, btw):

“Abingdon was built in 1695 by the Alexander family, whose name was later conveyed to the nearby port town that we know today as Alexandria. Years later, George Washington’s adopted stepson, John, purchased the house so that he could live closer to the Washingtons’ home at Mount Vernon.

The property later reverted to the Alexander descendants, named Hunter, up until the Civil War when the confederate sympathizers fled south. Like the nearby Custis Lee Mansion (today, Arlington National Cemetery), Union troops took the property over and made camp on the lawns. After the war, the Hunters returned and successfully sued the government for rights to Abingdon. The lawyer, incidentally, was James Garfield, the future president of the United States.”

“The mansion itself burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1930. It was possibly an act of arson—the RF&P Railroad wanted to build on the site, and had previously “invited employees to strip the house” in order to “save demolition costs,” according to the Washington Post.

The ruins of Abingdon then sat abandoned for 11 years until Washington National Airport was built on landfill just north of the site. The airport’s continued expansion over the years again threatened Abingdon. In 1990, the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority proposed bulldozing the fenced-off site to make way for a new parking garage. A vigorous preservation campaign played out in the city’s newspapers, and the ruins of Abingdon reopened in 1998 as a little park.”

The George Washington connection: Abingdon is the birthplace of Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter:

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | 2 Comments

Mount Vernon’s Hidden Entrance

Mount Vernon is located just south of us, right down the aptly named George Washington Parkway. Visitors to Mount Vernon pass through the main entrance, beyond which – and out of sight – lie the mansion, out buildings, and gardens.

There’s a great 30-mile-loop bike ride from Old Town we frequently use that passes by Mount Vernon as the route continues to the turnaround point in Yacht Haven, so we encounter the estate’s entrance several times a month.

However, the ride also passes by a different portal into the estate that tourists have no idea even exists: the overlooked West Gate.

Mount Vernon’s West Gate is located at the opposite end of the estate and off the parkway itself. The Google Earth image below shows the main entrance to Mount Vernon on the right (at the base of the roundabout) and the West Gate indicated by the red dot on the left.

The gate lies along an unassuming stretch of the appropriately monikered Old Mount Vernon Road at its intersection with Old Mill Road:

The trajectory of Old Mill Road would continue straight through to the mansion, if not for the gate:

Beyond which lies Mount Vernon itself,

From the site regarding traveling to Mount Vernon when George and Martha still occupied the estate: “Since the wharf on the Potomac River was reserved almost exclusively for deliveries, most of George Washington’s visitors arrived overland, on roads and paths that meandered past the fields and pastures surrounding the Mansion Farm House. Washington places a premium on first impressions. Visitors first sighted the Mansion from what is now known as the west gate. From there, they were afforded a “visto”, or view, of the west face of the Mansion, in front of which were cleared land and rolling hills for about seven-tenths of a mile.”

This 18th-century “visto” still exists, under the radar, and unknown to the tourists piling out of buses and filing into the main entrance:

Brief information on the West Gate right inside the barrier:

Definitely worth a look the next time you’re riding (or driving) near Mount Vernon:

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The Abandoned Rodman Guns of Fort Foote

So, we were supposed to be publishing posts from our Edinburgh trip this weekend (as well as a bunch of other backlogged posts), but it’s too much work right now.

However, after a ride today over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Prince Georges County, we thought this may be interesting to share instead. All of the quoted information below is from this helpful National Park Service site.

Fort Foote was one of 68 ring forts constructed during the Civil War to protect the capital city from Confederate attack. It’s still around, but is well and truly hidden. Seriously. We grew up in the area, are well aware of Fort Hunt on our side of the Potomac and the massive Fort Washington on the opposite shore, and had never heard of Fort Foote. It took the 2008 opening of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement – with outstanding pedestrian and bike infrastructure to reach Prince Georges County – to make us aware of its existence. Even with this revelation, it’s still jarring to wander through the overgrown site, turn a corner, and stumble upon the massive abandoned Rodman guns.

Some background on Fort Foote from the Park Service:

“In 1862 the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac, at Hampton Roads, created panic in Washington. As the war progressed, many European countries seemed eager to join the fight on the side of the Confederacy. Fort Washington, on the Potomac River 16 miles below Washington was considered too far away to be adequately supported. Therefore the protection of the city from naval attack became a major concern and army engineers began building earthworks to resist naval bombardment.”

“In the words of General Barnard they were “in many respects, model works. Fort Foote was constructed for the purpose of defending, in connection with Battery Rogers, the water approach to the city.”

Battery Rodgers, as it happens, is just a few blocks away from us in Old Town – there’s a historical marker on the 800 block of South Lee Street, just a little west of where the battery stood during the Civil War.

“Fort Foote was situated six miles below Washington,on a commanding bluff of the Maryland shore, elevated 100 feet above the river. The fort was essentially completed in the fall of 1863, and was designed as a water battery of eight 200-pounder Parrott rifles and two 15-inch guns.”

Location of Fort Foote (and Battery Rodgers):

Location Satellite

The Saturday in May 2008 that the new bridge and bike lane opened, one of us headed across to explore, with Fort Washington as the destination for the ride. On the way, right on the curve of Fort Foote Road, was an unassuming sign in a field by an empty gravel parking lot.

There only signage in the park is a hundred yards into the woods, where there’s barely a trail to follow:

Even from this location, there was no fort or guns to be seen. Only a long berm, overgrown with bushes and saplings. This turned out to be the remains of one of the earthworks.

Beyond, lay one of the guns:

Some background on Fort Foote’s firepower during the Civil War from the Park Service site: “The first 15-inch gun arrived in the fall of 1863 and by April 1865 the fort boasted of two 15-inch Rodman Cannons, four 200 pounder Parrott Rifles and six 30 pounder Parrott Rifles. The work was declared complete on June 6, 1865. A large crowd of civilian and military observers gathered to watch the guns fire on February 27 and again on April 1, 1864. The 8-inch Parrott Rifles weighed over 8 tons and used 16 pounds of powder to fire its 200-pound projectile 2,000 yards down the river. But the fort’s main attraction was the 15-inch [Rodmans]. They weighed in at 25 tons and required 300 to 400 soldiers to move them up the bluff from the river. Forty pounds of powder could send a 440-pound round-shot over 5,000 yards.”

It’s difficult to convey how truly huge these mothers are without some perspective, even from a shot this close:

So, some perspective:

The guns are massive, and they’re basically just abandoned in the woods. “During the Civil War the 15-inch guns cost the government $9,000 each but they could do major damage to a wood sailing ship-of-war. At close range, even the iron clads were not safe from the massive weapons.”

“During our Civil War most European navies armed their vessels with 9-inch rifled guns. Other technologies such as the screw propeller, steam engine, rotating gun turret and iron-sided ships with watertight compartments were making our seacoast defenses obsolete. Our government could not afford an arms races so it was decided to wait and see how the gun versus ship race progressed before investing in changes. In 1870, the army started an extensive program to modify existing defenses. Inexpensive earthwork batteries were armed with existing smoothbore guns, primarily the 15-inch Rodman. A few guns were mounted but funds were withdrawn in 1875. The Chief of Engineers stated in his 1877 annual report, “Our largest guns, of which we have any number, is a 15-inch smooth-bore, and weighs over 25 ton. We have about 325 of them for our entire coast of 12,600 miles.”

The 15-inch gun was finally tested at Sandy Hook, NJ in 1883. It was found that 130 pounds of black-powder created 25,000 pounds of pressure in the chamber and at 20 degrees elevation the gun could send a 440-pound shell over 3 1/2 miles. At 1,000 yards the round-ball projectile could pierce 10 inches of iron. No warship, regardless of how well armored, could afford to trade shots with a 15-inch Rodman at close range.”

I’ve brought riding partners to the site when they join me for the ride east from Alexandria into PG County, and some have found more creative ways to provide the size context:

If you have 15 minutes to blow after a visit to National Harbor, Fort Foote is worth checking out. Unassuming, overgrown, and with two big ass Rodman guns sitting in a sylvan setting as incongruous reminders of the site’s power for a few years in the 1860s. The now-homely site even hosted some notables during the war:

“The first unit to garrison Fort Foote was four companies of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery that arrived on August 12, 1863. The post was commanded by lieutenant Colonel William H. Seward, Jr., the son of the Secretary of State. The secretary visited the post often while his son was in command and President Lincoln visited the fort on August 20, 1863 with the Secretary of War and number of high-ranking army officers.”

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | 3 Comments

18th-Century Ship at the Foot of Wolfe

On Saturday, Alexandria left exposed for 4 hours the hull of an 18th-century ship uncovered during ongoing construction work on the block between Wolfe and Duke on Union. The ship is the largest of three undergoing excavations on the site and one of four discovered in a two-block area along the water; the fourth was encountered 18 months ago during construction of Hotel Indigo a block north.


Visitors started to gather at noon for the 4-hour viewing period before tarps over the hull were replaced to protect it from degradation due to exposure.

The city’s Acting Archeologist told us during our visit that the ships were likely scuttled in 1798 as part of the city’s efforts to create more land on the waterfront to support warehouses of the port city.


View of the hull facing north from Wolfe Street; the stone foundation of a 19th-century warehouse (that was buried by a 20th-century warehouse) can be seen at the top of the picture.

The ship is about 46′ by 25′ and had reinforced futtocks (curved timber pieces forming the lower part of a ship’s frame) suggesting that it could have been used to haul military cargo. A bunch of volunteers at the event wore “Save our Futtocks” buttons promoting funding preservation efforts for the ship.


View of the hull facing west from the waterfront

In addition to scuttling the ships to extend the shoreline, the city also used cribbing – rough boxes created with logs and filled with anything on hand – for the same purpose.


Exposed cribbing immediately west of the ship hull.

To be clear, this really wasn’t the most exciting find in the world and we were a little underwhelmed by the ship hull itself. That said, it’s great to see these historical remnants of the city’s early period exposed, interpreted, and open to the public during construction of a new development along the water and at the foot of Wolfe Street.

Save our Futtocks!


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Mappy Hour: Independent from Spain? One Catalonian Town Already Is (Geographically, at Least)

Events swirling around Catalonia’s lurch toward independence from Spain accelerated rapidly today. Catalonia’s Parliament declared independence and Spain reacted by suspending the region’s government, taking over Catalonia’s police, and calling for December elections.

In the meantime, as the New York Times reported today, the Catalonian town of Llivia has been independent from Spain for 350 years. Geographically, the town is located entirely within France:

The NYT reports that, with regard to independence, “for Llivia, a quaint town tucked about 4,000 feet up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, an important part of that decision was made centuries ago. Llivia is already separated from Spain physically: The five-square-mile municipality is a geographic anomaly resulting from a quirk of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, which settled a more-than-two-decade round of fighting between Spain and France.

Only “villages,” according to the treaty, were to be ceded to the French crown. Llivia was considered a town, not a village, and so remained part of Spain, and the region of Catalonia.”

Catalonia est non Espana! And, if Catalonia does indeed secede, Llivia won’t be Catalonia (on a map, anyway).

The cartographic coolness never ends.

Categories: Mappy Hour, Maps and Miscellany | 4 Comments

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