The city of Alexandria in the U.S. state of Virginia is rich with history, and the history runs deep. There are billions of stories that this town has to tell. You hear so much about its colonial history. Many of its famous sites include the famous Christ Church where all but a small handful of U.S. presidents have attended church services and Gadsby Tavern when a man named George Washington had a few meals.
Some of you are saying, “Well, this is very nice, but you never hear anything about the railroads.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Alexandria has many railroad stories to tell. It was where Abraham Lincoln’s personal railroad car was built. (Sadly, it became his funeral car.) It was the home of a roundhouse (which was demolished). It was the home of three major railroads. One of them was the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
What made Alexandria a major railroad town?
In the colonial years, the port of Alexandria was a major port city. (It is said that it was once the fifth busiest port in the nation.) When the railroad came to Alexandria, they had a little problem in the southern area of the town as there was a bluff that was too high for a railroad.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel was born.
On May 7, 1851, the tunnel was built, and the railroad was able to transport goods from the ships in the Potomac River to the warehouses in town and to towns in the western part of the state. As port traffic declined, so did the use of the railroad, and service through the tunnel ended in 1975.
Today, the Wilkes Street Tunnel is a pedestrian tunnel, and it is one of the few railroad sites that remain in Alexandria. As you take a stroll through the tunnel, you see little evidence of a railroad passing through as much of the area has been built up, and the park on the east side shows no evidence of rail traffic, and much of the shores of the Potomac River which once a port for ships is now a site of waterfront homes and parks. If you could go back in time, you will truly see a place that is completely different.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel is located at the east end of Wilkes Street in Old Town Alexandria between Union Street and Royal Street. It is open day and night every day of the year. It is wheelchair accessible. Parking is on the street, and it is zone parking.
The city of Alexandria, Virginia is a city with many stories to tell, and it has many railroad stories to tell. The Wilkes Street Tunnel is a reminder of those stories.
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