The Wilkes Street Tunnel was built in the 1850s and serves as a reminder of Alexandria's early years as a railroad terminus. Once a critical part of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the tunnel is now a popular spot for residents who enjoy the tunnel's lighted walkway which forms a part of the city's walking and bike path.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel first went into operation on May
1851, shortly after the Commonwealth of Virginia authorized a train line running from Gordonsville to Alexandria. The tunnel connected the Orange &
Alexandria Railroad with the busy waterfront warehouses and wharves located
on the banks of the Potomac.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel is a classic example of cut-and-cover
tunnel construction, which is a method of shallow tunnel construction where a
trench is dug and roofed over with an overhead support system. This support
system must be strong enough to hold whatever is built above the tunnel. The
sides of the Wilkes Street Tunnel are made of stones and bricks, and its arch
is a traditional barrel vault.
As the Civil War developed, the railroad systems became
coveted assets for both the Union and the Confederation. Consequently, shortly
after the Union Army occupied Alexandria, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad
was seized and incorporated into the U.S. Military Railroads. Thanks to the Wilkes
Street Tunnel, the Union had easy access to the waterfront wharves, which they
took advantage in order to ship military supplies south of Aquia Creek.
The Wilkes Street Tunnel was deepened shortly after World
War I to allow the passing through of higher boxcar.