City’s founder may have had the solstice in mind in 1786
Is Charles Town one big solar calendar? Manuell Alvarez thinks so.
And Alvarez, who worked for 40 years as a draftsman designing blueprints, said he believes that is exactly how town founder Charles Washington intended it.
Alvarez said he noticed one day while looking at the streets of Charles Town that they were not aligned along north-south or east-west paths, but rather at a slight diagonal. When he measured that angle, he was surprised what he found.
“The streets are 23-and-a-half degrees off of the latitude and the longitude,” he said. “It dawned on me that that is the same angle as the tilt of the earth.”
Alvarez theorizes that the streets were put at this angle in order to align them with the track of the sun on the summer solstice, which occurs Saturday at 10:51 a.m. While he doesn’t have any historical documentation to back up his claim, he argues that the specific angle of the streets is too precise to have happened by accident.
The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere when the earth reaches its maximum axial tilt of 23 degrees, 26 minutes, marking the first day of summer and resulting in that day having the longest period of daylight. It can occur on either June 20, 21 or 22. The solstice will also occur on June 21 next year, but will happen in 2016 on June 20. The last June 22 solstice occurred in 1971 and won’t happen again on that day until 2203.
“On the summer solstice, the sun at noon should center on South George Street while the Jefferson County Courthouse steeple acting like a giant sundial gnomon should tell the time of the day by the position of the shadow it casts,” Alvarez wrote in a Feb. 24 letter describing the event.
“I don’t think this could be an accident. It had to be done for a reason,” said Alvarez, who was born and raised in Charles Town and has lived in the area all his life.
“I theorize that what is happening in Charles Town is that it is like a solar calendar. The sun aligns with the streets on the equinoxes and solstices, and it has been doing it for 238 years.”
Charles Town was officially chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in January 1787.
Alvarez said he disputes the Internet coordinates given for the City of Charles Town that show the center as being between the streets of Samuel and George on East Washington streets and maintains instead the design center is at the middle of the Washington and George streets intersection. It is precisely where Charles Washington would have started his layout and survey of Charles Town around 1786.
He said evidence that collaborates this location is the fact that the Lancaster Circle in Ranson, the intersection of George and Washington streets, and Charles Washington’s Happy Retreat appear to be located approximately equal distance on the same longitudinal line within an error of a hundredth of a degree.
“Thus, one can draw a straight line through all three points,” Alvarez said. “At one time, these reference points may have had a survey marker installed there as a survey reference point by Washington.
Alvarez says he is looking forward to being able to test the validity of his sun calendar theory.
“I think that on June 21 on the summer solstice, when the sun is highest in the sky at noon, it will be centered on South George Street,” he said. “It will rise on East Washington Street and set on West Washington Street. I think that’s how Charles Washington aligned it.”
In the meantime, Alvarez says he has been reaching out to scientists to see if they can confirm his prediction.
He says he thinks aligning the streets – and particularly the “design center” of the town, the intersection of George Street and Washington Street – may have been Charles Washington’s way of paying tribute to his family.
“I think he wanted to honor his family and all of his siblings,” he said. “He laid it out so that the sun always shines on the Washington family.”