Alexandria’s History Museum Exhibit Explores City’s Boat-Building Tradition

A new exhibition, “The Alexandria Seaport Foundation: Continuing the Boat-Building Tradition,” is now open at The Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum. The exhibition, open through Sunday, March 1, in the Coldsmith Gallery, examines the City’s boat and shipbuilding activities and features a Yankee Skiff, built by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation.

The tradition of Alexandrians’ close ties to the Potomac River and to vessels has continued over the past two and a half centuries, and is preserved today through the work of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. This exhibit examines some of the people involved in this rich community history, and helps to put the Foundation’s efforts into a broader context.

Even before Alexandria’s founding, American Indians in this area used the river and its resources daily, moving along it in dugout canoes. Some were quite large, and could easily hold sizeable quantities of fish and shellfish, as well as transport people and trade goods considerable distances. Europeans arriving in the 17th century had similar needs, and possessed few wheeled vehicles and even fewer roads on which to operate them. Transportation by water was thus much easier in early Tidewater Virginia, especially for large quantities or heavy goods.

Alexandria was founded as a trading place by merchants with a need to move raw materials and merchandise regularly, so it is no surprise that ship- and boatbuilding activities developed in town very early. Isaac and Thomas Fleming were building vessels along Alexandria’s waterfront as early as 1752, just three years after the town’s creation, and before many of the lots even had buildings on them. Sailing ships were the technological marvel of the 18th century, and each vessel required the skills of dozens of workmen to complete and supply for service.

Even in Alexandria’s earliest years, then, the town’s population must have included many shipwrights, joiners, riggers, rope- and block-makers, mast- and sail-makers, among dozens of other ship- and boatbuilding craftsmen. Years later, in the early 20th century, the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation constructed nine steel ships at Jones Point for the World War I effort.

Featured at the new Lyceum exhibition is a craft manufactured by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation and known by various names – Staten Island Skiff, Yankee Skiff, or oyster skiff. Recognized for its steadiness, either loaded or light, this style of small boat has been used since the mid-1800s in areas with shad or oyster fisheries, such as Raritan Bay and Upper and Lower New York Bays near Staten Island, N.Y., and the lower Chesapeake Bay. The skiff’s combination of a stable hull and good performance under sail and oars made it one of the best suited working craft for these fisheries, and hundreds were brought to the Mid-Atlantic region on the decks of schooners.

Also open at The Lyceum is the related exhibition on the Jones Point Lighthouse and its Fresnel-style lens, which guided vessels into Alexandria on the Potomac. A scale model of the lighthouse building and interpretative panels discuss the history of the lighthouse from its construction in 1856 to recent restoration efforts.

The Lyceum is located at 201 South Washington Street in Old Town Alexandria and is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Suggested admission is $2, and limited off-street parking is free. For more information, please visit or call 703.838.4994.

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