Re: "What is going on in this Alexandria Virginia image?"
Hi. I would have replied sooner, but my place of employment, in return for paying me, expects me to perform "work."
That picture might have appeared in the November 1936 issue of the National Geographic magazine. This issue had an article called "Trains of Today -- and Tomorrow," by Jess Richard Hildebrand. You can see a little bit of it at https://books.google.com/books?id=4ggZAAAAIAAJ&q=national+geographic+trains+of+tomorrow
. Sometimes you can read articles online, but National Geographic appears to have a solid copyright on this one. I tried looking a little this afternoon, but I couldn't quickly find either of my two copies of that issue.
The article had about three pictures of Potomac Yards. This one was taken at the Mutual Ice Company icing facility. It was located just south of the east end of the Monroe Street bridge. The bridge was a concrete affair. Jefferson Davis Highway and Monroe Street intersected at the west end. The bridge took vehicles over the two-train passenger main and then the tracks where southbound freight trains were assembled. You can see the pole line (telegraph wires) in the background. The passenger is at a slightly higher elevation than the freight tracks, so that errant derailed freight cars could not foul the passenger tracks.
At the east end of the bridge, eastbound traffic could go three way. A slight left would take you to Slaters Lane toward the Pepco electric plant, built in 1949, give or take. Going straight ahead would take you past Perrine's gas station (Gulf?) and toward Powhatan Street. A sharp right would put you on Henry Street. If you took the sharp right, you would go past the offices of Allegheny Airlines (in the early 60s). Next on your right was the Mutual Ice Company, or MICO. Its most recognizable structure was the water tank, painted red and white checkerboard (think Purina Chow) that kept it supplied with water. The water tank is still there, though it is now painted the shade of green found inside insane asylums and schools.
MICO took the water and froze it into big blocks of ice. Trains of perishable food -- fruits, vegetables, and meats -- would be assembled in the South. The perishable food was transported in refrigerated boxcars, or reefers. There were hatches at the ends of the roof where blocks of ice were put into the cars before the trains were dispatched from the South. The trains then headed up the Atlantic Coast Line or Seaboard to Potomac Yards. Along the way, the ice melted. The melt water dripped out through holes in the floor of the car. Every freight train stopped at Potomac Yards (PY). By the time the trains got to PY, it was time to replenish the ice. The reefers were sent over to the icing racks on the east side of the yard, where the operation depicted in the photograph was carried out.
This was long before mechanical refrigeration became practicable on the railroad. Once mechanical refrigeration was possible, there was no more need to stop the trains and replenish the ice. The next time you see the Tropicana train go by, notice the refrigerator unit at the end of each car. That spelled the end of MICO.
The picture is taken looking to the southwest. You can check old city directories in the historic room at the Barrett branch of the Alexandria Library, the one on Queen Street, for more information.
I remember driving over the bridge and seeing the icing racks. There was a shopping center between Powhatan Street where I used to be taken for my haircuts.
This is a great thread. I appreciate all the old photographs and the information in it. I hope this helps.
Keep up the good work.