Genuine cobblestone streets are a rare sight in the United States, and even in regions like Europe, they’re not as prevalent as some might assume. Many folks mix up sett stones with cobblestones, but stumbling upon a truly preserved cobblestone street is a special occurrence.
We’ve marveled at the charm of cobblestone roads in locations like Nantucket and Acorn Street in Boston, and another cobbled gem can be discovered in Alexandria, Virginia.
Now, let’s embark on a stroll down Captains Row, nestled in Old Town Alexandria.
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What is Captains Row in Old Town Alexandria?
Captains Row, located in Old Town Alexandria, is a historic line of townhouses situated along the cobblestone-paved stretch of Prince Street. The name of this picturesque block is derived from the sea captains who, having docked their ships at the Alexandria wharves, constructed Federal-period row homes during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
A brief history of Captains Row in Old Town Alexandria
Old Town Alexandria holds a distinctive allure, having been a part of Washington DC in the past until it was retroceded to Virginia in 1847.
You can still uncover remnants of this historical connection that harken back to the city’s earlier days at places like Christ Church Alexandria.
The cobblestone paving on Captains Row and neighboring areas is often attributed to Hessian Soldiers, German mercenaries captured during the Revolutionary War and hired to fight for the British. Legend has it that the cobblestones were brought from England and then assembled by these POWs.
However, contrary to this tale, most of the stones actually came from the Potomac River.
It wasn’t until 1795, a decade after the war concluded, that the streets were paved.
Back then, as the city rapidly grew, there was a pressing need for improved infrastructure.
This was crucial not just for boosting commerce but also for tackling issues like rainwater pooling, a potential breeding ground for stagnant water and, consequently, disease. You can still see some of the gutters in the cobblestone alleys today.
Eventually, the town council greenlit a lottery to fund the paving, with the cost set at half a dollar for every ton of suitable stone, defined as “an oval kind weighing from 15 pounds to 60 and upwards.”
The cobblestone streets endured for decades in Alexandria throughout the 1800s, demanding consistent upkeep, including the periodic repositioning of the cobblestones.
However, they weren’t without their challenges; dried mud often gave rise to dust, infiltrating the nearby stores. In a bid to address these issues, the decision was made in 1893 to start swapping out the cobblestones for bricks.
As for the buildings you will find, according to one source, the majority of homes on the south side of the 100 block of Prince Street were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries by Col. George Gilpin, a close associate of George Washington and a colonial cartographer.
On the north side of the block, it’s said that Philadelphia sea captain John Harper erected the houses.
But regardless of who built these homes, tragedy struck on January 18, 1827, when a fire engulfed the entire block and many surrounding structures. Swift reconstruction followed, but over time, many houses underwent a “colonialized” transformation.
Exploring Captains Row in Old Town
Captains Row is situated along the 100 block of Prince Street, encompassing approximately 250 feet of cobblestone charm. This historic stretch is conveniently close to the heart of Old Town, known as King Street, where a plethora of restaurants and shops await exploration.
Finding street parking in the vicinity can be a bit of a challenge at times, but there’s a lot available where you can snag a full-day parking spot for just $10. From this parking haven, you’re merely a block away from the captivating Captains Row.
When you step onto Captains Row, keep in mind that it’s a bustling, one-way street. Navigating the traffic is easy for that reason but be mindful not to obstruct the flow. You might encounter some cars temporarily double-parked, potentially hindering your perfect photo op. Patience is key—wait a bit, and they’ll likely move on.
And here’s a heads-up if you’re a cobblestone rookie: walking on these uneven stones can be a tad tricky, especially when wet or if you’re sporting high heels or shoes not quite cut out for the rocky terrain. So, tread carefully and perhaps opt for footwear that’s up to the cobblestone challenge.
Captains Row is a sight to behold, with its stunning architecture boasting Federal-style charm. The beauty is accentuated by the presence of American flags adorning many of the buildings, creating a reminiscent atmosphere of Acorn Street. While Acorn Street feels more like an alley, Captains Row, with its broader expanse, aligns closely with the charm found in Nantucket.
The grandeur of Captains Row extends beyond its cobblestones and historic homes. Towering trees arch over the street, creating a natural canopy. While late November brought a leaf-strewn ambiance during your visit, one can only imagine the sheer beauty of this scene during other times of the year. The changing seasons likely cast a different enchantment, making each visit to Captains Row a unique and visually captivating experience.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the historical ambiance of Captains Row, take a leisurely stroll through the rest of Old Town. The area is teeming with a multitude of attractions waiting to be explored.
Interestingly, Captains Row isn’t the lone contender in the realm of beautifully preserved cobblestone streets. Venture over to Princess Street at its intersection with Washington, and you’ll discover another stretch that echoes the historic charm of cobblestones. Just keep in mind this street has two-way traffic.
And don’t overlook the possibility of stumbling upon some cobblestone-laden alleyways which were designed to help reroute the flow of water. Old Town Alexandria has more than a few hidden gems waiting to be uncovered.
In case you’re curious about the real estate prices on Captains Row, these historic homes don’t come cheap—they all command a hefty price tag, typically exceeding the million-dollar mark.
Genuine cobblestone roads are a rarity, but there are certain pockets in the US where these gems can still be discovered. Often, these locations boast some of the most charming and picturesque streets you’ll encounter.
Alexandria’s Old Town stands as a prime example, with Captains Row emerging as one of the most scenic streets in the country. Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the street is steeped in captivating history, mirroring the rich narrative woven throughout the town of Alexandria.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.