“From the Archives” Streetcars on South Royal Street
In the latter years of the 19th century, the Washington, Alexandria & Mount Vernon Railway brought streetcars, or trolleys, to Alexandria. In Old Town, the route ran east via King Street until reaching a station at Royal Street next to Market Square. The streetcars then turned south on Royal Street, passing directly in front of Saint Mary Church. The route crossed Hunting Creek to enter Fairfax County via a 3,500-foot-long concrete and steel bridge, then travelling to Mount Vernon with stops along the way. One stop was down the hill from Belle Haven. The Victorian station there, converted into homes, was still around a few years ago. The current parkway, built for the 1932 George Washington bicentennial, contributed to the demise of the trolley line as buses became the modern way to go.
The trolleys were very convenient, providing Alexandrians with a quick way to travel throughout the area. Saint Mary parishioners used them for picnics and excursions along the river. A branch of the streetcar line, running through the Rosemont section of Alexandria and up Commonwealth Avenue starting at King Street, carried Saint Mary parishioners to events at our parish mission church, Saint Rita, in Del Ray. For large parish events, the railway company added special trains to accommodate the number of parishioners. Teachers at Saint Mary School found the railway invaluable for class field trips.
But the trolley tracks were not always a blessing. At first, Royal Street was not paved and the passing streetcars raised a lot of dust. In 1912, Saint Mary parishioners petitioned the railway to pave Royal Street between Prince and Wilkes Streets. The petition charged that dust from the trolleys was a nuisance. “Such conditions were especially annoying to the congregation of St. Mary’s Church, that edifice being often filled with dust by passing trains.” (Alexandria Gazette, July 23, 1912)
Royal Street was eventually paved with light-colored bricks. The electric railway service ceased to operate in April 1932. Streetcars were replaced by buses and the street was paved with asphalt. But as late as the 1950s, there were worn spots in the street where the old tracks and brickwork could still be seen.
– Kitty Guy, Parish Historian
Throughout 2020, the Basilica of Saint Mary will present “From the Archives.” It is a weekly feature online and in our bulletin spotlighting the history of the parish. All of our “From the Archives” features are located here.