It was home to sea captains in the days when Alexandria was a major commercial port and clipper ships and brigs lined the Potomac waterfront.
The sea captains are long gone, the houses are all private residences, and the ships are tourist boats with names like the Dandy Cruiser. But Captain's Row, the 100 block of Prince Street in the heart of Old Town, has kept its ties to the past.
There are the three gaslight lamps that residents paid to have installed. The houses, most of them brick and built like steps down the hill that once sat on the river's edge, have been restored and look much as they would have when first built around the time of the Revolutionary War or replaced after a great fire in 1827 destroyed many of the originals.
And there are the cobblestones.
Only two blocks in Alexandria can boast of streets paved with cobblestones rather than asphalt: Captain's Row is one, the 600 block of Princess Street is the other.
The legend surrounding the cobblestones is as much a part of Captain's Row as the multicolored, irregularly shaped stones themselves. Local folklore says the cobblestones were brought from England in ships as ballast and were laid by captured Hessians, the German mercenaries hired to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War.
That story prompted one local historian, T. Michael Miller, to look deeper. Miller is a historian at Lloyd House, part of the Alexandria library devoted to research on Virginia.
Collecting documents for his paper, "Alexandria Streets and Cobblestones: When and How They Were Paved," Miller found the streets were not paved until 1795, a decade after the war ended, after the town council passed a law authorizing a lottery to pay for the paving. The going rate: half a dollar for every ton of suitable stone, suitable defined as "an oval kind weighing from 15 pounds to 60 and upwards," according to notices issued by the street commissioners at the time.
Contrary to legend, most of the stones came from the Potomac River.
For unsuspecting drivers, the city has posted a sign announcing a weight limit of five tons at the entrance to the block, which becomes one-way at South Lee Street heading toward the river. As a testimonial to the durability of the stones, cars can be seen coming down Prince Street toward the water and then being forced to brake when they hit the grinding bumps.
According to historian Ethelyn Cox, the 1749 map of Alexandria shows that the river came to within a third of a block of present-day Lee Street. By the end of the Revolutionary War, dry land had been created, through filling, to a point below Union Street.
Cox is the author of "Historic Alexandria, Va., Street by Street," which was commissioned by the Historic Alexandria Foundation. The book is a survey of existing early buildings that was made in 1976.
Historical accounts show that most of the original houses on the south side of the block were built by Col. George Gilpin, an early cartographer and friend of George Washington. The houses on the north side of the block were built by sea captain John Harper, a Quaker from Philadelphia who was also a prominent wheat dealer in town.
Harper, who owned considerable land, had 20 children by his first wife, Sarah Wells, and nine by his second wife, Mary Cunningham. And to each of his children he left a house and a lot, according to historical accounts.
The two- and three-story houses on Captain's Row, a name coined in the late 1930s during a major restoration and renovation period, are now among the more choice pieces of real estate in the city, with prices of $200,000 and up.
Some residents, like Lois Moffett, have ties to their homes that go back three generations. But whether they are relative newcomers who couldn't afford to buy a town house in Georgetown or longtime Alexandrians, residents share a common pride, some of it attributable to the battles they have won to reduce the traffic and noise that have spilled into the residential blocks as a result of Old Town's increasing popularity.
Although they are closely watching an office and retail complex under construction at the foot of their block, residents say the battles are more or less over. And they say they are lucky to have such a nice place to live.
Moffett, whose grandmother and mother also lived in the house where she now lives with her husband Lewis, put it this way: "Where else could you live and walk two blocks to progress?"