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What Once Was

Washington’s Lime Kilns: Creating the stuff of building

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

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Tucked away in an obscure corner of Foggy Bottom is an odd sight — several curious stone walls and structures neatly embraced by the Whitehurst Freeway and Rock Creek Parkway ramps.

Godey Lime Kilns Ruins, July 1965. photo--Abbe Rowe for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

Godey Lime Kilns Ruins, July 1965. photo–Abbe Rowe for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

These are the remnants of a flourishing 19th century construction materials industry. Building any city requires a variety of construction materials, as did Washington; much of it was imported, like Aquia sandstone and (later) Vermont marble. Some materials like limestone required transformation on site into materials — lime for mortar, quicklime for plaster and for whitewash.

An outstanding existing example of the remnants of Washington’s industry is the Godey Lime Kilns in Foggy Bottom. Rendered nearly invisible by the freeway ramps, they can be reached from L Street, walking west from 26th Street to the spot where 27th Street once was. What one finds there are the remains of two of the four kilns. Generally unknown is the original builder and that there also were numerous other lime manufacturers in the District in the 19th century, not just along Rock Creek but scattered across Foggy Bottom.

But the fact is that burning limestone to make lime is a noxious business. Limestone is transported to a location convenient to transportation for delivery and to manufacture lime products; in Washington this was at the mouth of Rock Creek. The limestone, usually brought by canal from quarries near Harper’s Ferry, was crushed and washed. Then it was pre-heated, then cooked (“calcined” is the technical term), then cooled. The resulting quicklime can be further processed with water into hydrated lime powder. Quicklime is used in mortar; hydrated lime in plaster and whitewash; also fertilizer and for many other uses.

By 1819 the Washington City Council had outlawed the obnoxious manufacture of lime without a license and imposed fines on those caught doing so.

“An Act Respecting licenses to slaughterhouses and brick and lime kilns. August 14, 1819”; Andrew Rothwell, Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington (1833).

“An Act Respecting licenses to slaughterhouses and brick and lime kilns. August 14, 1819”; Andrew Rothwell, Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington (1833).

There was however no provision made for the issuing of a license to operate a lime kiln (only 13 license types existed in 1823).

Samuel Burch, A digest of the laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington to the first of June 1823.

Samuel Burch, A digest of the laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington to the first of June 1823.

The 1832 lawsuit of Ulysses Ward v. Corporation of Washington prompted the city to allow kilns back into operation; the court recognized the unfairness of the city requiring a license but not making provision for issuing them!

The need for lime was still there: the population had grown 20 percent in the previous decade (from 33,039 in 1820 to 39,834 in 1830). In 1833, the Council backtracked and authorized the construction of those kilns we see today.

Council Resolution Authorizing Construction of Lime Kilns [at 27th and K Streets NW] Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington.

Council Resolution Authorizing Construction of Lime Kilns [at 27th and K Streets NW] Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington.

However, it was not Godey whose name these ruins carry today who built them, but William Easby and Joseph L. Kuhn. Easby was ubiquitous in Washington’s highest political, military, and social circles. An Englishman by birth, he had served at the Navy Yard as the Master Boat Builder during the rebuilding following the burning of Washington in 1814. A man of many talents, he was called on to do jobs daunting to others, including superintending the transport of the 12-ton Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington from the Navy Yard to the Capitol Rotunda.

An active Whig politically, Easby resigned government service on the election of Andrew Jackson and built his own shipyard where the Coast Guard cutters Forward and C.W Lawrence were built. The Baltimore Sun of March 10, 1842 had a correspondent note that “The Cutter is pronounced by competent judges to be one of the prettiest models ever set up in this District. . . .” Revenue cutters were the United States government’s means of enforcing customs regulations on the high seas but also were pressed into service in the War of 1812, Mexican War, and others.

Easby was prominent in local politics and served on the city’s Common Council in the 1830s and 1840s. And his highest office was that of Commissioner of Public Buildings where he oversaw the United States Capitol (except for the extension). His obituary in the August 1, 1854 National Intelligencer reported, “Capt. Easby was best known by the indomitable perseverance with which he prosecuted all his enterprises, whether public or private.”

In due course he moved east from Foggy Bottom, transforming Tunnicliff’s Tavern into his home. (See, InTowner, January 2015 “What Once Was”.) Easby died in 1854 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.

Gravestone of William Easby in Congressional Cemetery. photo—courtesy Congressional Cemetery (via findagrave.com).

Gravestone of William Easby in Congressional Cemetery. photo—courtesy Congressional Cemetery (via findagrave.com).

Easby’s partner Kuhn had been the paymaster of the Marine Corps and had run into controversy and Peter Force published his detailed accounts and correspondence (running over 60 pages).

The lime kilns at 27th and K Streets were not Easby’s only lime kilns. He owned the Hamburgh Lime Kilns on square 63 on the waterfront, in the vicinity of what is now 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue. Nor were those kilns the only ones in the area. Newspapers are dotted with references to other lime kilns; one was at 20th and D Streets, NW. Nearby on square 124 at New York Avenue and D Street were the National Lime Kilns; more kilns were in square 7 at Virginia Avenue and H Street. The Potomac Lime Kilns were on 27th Street near K.
*In the spring of 1856 the Evening Star carried the announcement: “LIME!! – LIME!! – LIME!! – announcing a kiln capable of producing a very superior wood burnt lime.” W.H. Godey now ran the lime kilns at 27th and K Streets and was touting the excellence of his product.

June 21, 1856 Godey Lime Kilns advertisement from the Evening Star.

June 21, 1856 Godey Lime Kilns advertisement from the Evening Star.

1903 Sanborn map showing Godey Lime Kilns. illus.--Library of Congress.

1903 Sanborn map showing Godey Lime Kilns. illus.–Library of Congress.

Newspapers were reporting his substantial improvements, including a new wharf in 1857, crediting Godey with being the largest lime burners in the area, producing his superior wood-burned lime.

April 10, 1857 article form the Evening Star.

April 10, 1857 article form the Evening Star.

After the Civil War the business environment was changing. Competition changed –- Thomas Dowling sold his kilns upstream Rock Creek on the west bank above M Street in 1871. There was competition nearby (at 28th Street between I and K) from Cammack and Edmonston Lime Kilns. Across Rock Creek in Georgetown (in square 1193) and from Levin Cartwright and George Johnson who established a lime works in 1883. E.E. Barton’s 1884 Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and environs touted Washington’s commercial progress (simultaneously as the “Paris of America”) and featured an impressive illustration of what was then Cammack and Decker Lime Kilns biographical sketch of Edward Godey.

“Cammacker and Decker” from E.E. Barnes, Historical and commercial sketches of Washington and environs: our capital city, "the Paris of America"; its prominent places and people ... Its improvements, progress and enterprise (1884).

“Cammacker and Decker” from E.E. Barnes, Historical and commercial sketches of Washington and environs: our capital city, “the Paris of America”; its prominent places and people … Its improvements, progress and enterprise (1884).

“Edward Godey” from E.E. Barnes, Historical and commercial sketches of Washington and environs: our capital city, "the Paris of America"; its prominent places and people ... Its improvements, progress and enterprise (1884).

“Edward Godey” from E.E. Barnes, Historical and commercial sketches of Washington and environs: our capital city, “the Paris of America”; its prominent places and people … Its improvements, progress and enterprise (1884).

The younger Godey took over and rechristened the family business in 1884 simply as Edward Godey (his mother ran the kilns when his father William H. Godey died in 1872). But his life was a short unhappy one; Godey was committed to Matley Hill Sanitarium in Baltimore and died in December 1889. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. His death may have been hastened by the natural disaster the previous June.

It was nature that put the end to lime manufacture in Washington. In early June of 1889 the city was flooded. And on June 5th Godey announced in the Evening Star that he was closing his business. While the waterfront and much of downtown Washington had been flooded, it was the damage to the Chesapeake and Ohio canal and the impossibility of resumption of delivery of supplies of limestone that he credited with ending his business.

Map redrawn from “Report of Board of Sanitary Engineers - Map  of the City of Washington showing present main sewerage and sewerage outfalls also the territory flooded in June 1889.” illus.—courtesy Matthew Gilmore private collection.

Map redrawn from “Report of Board of Sanitary Engineers – Map of the City of Washington showing present main sewerage and sewerage outfalls also the territory flooded in June 1889.” illus.—courtesy Matthew Gilmore private collection.

June 5, 1889 article from the Evening Star.

June 5, 1889 article from the Evening Star.

In 1891 the kilns were reopened under the Godey name but run by John Dodson, as announced in the November 28, 1891 issue of Star.

 

November 28, 1891 article from the Evening Star.

November 28, 1891 article from the Evening Star.

By 1892 only three lime manufacturers remained.

In the 1890s citizens raised concerns about smoke and soot. In 1894 it was ruled the District Commissioners could not use the regulatory power granted to them in formulating police regulations to address the issue. Legislation was sent to Congress in 1898. Smoke Law (regulations) proposed by the District Commissioners and passed into law by Congress in 1899 imposed fines for industrial release of smoke. The “emission of dense or thick black or gray smoke or cinders from any smokestack or chimney . . . shall be deemed . . . a public nuisance.” (Evening Star, January 21, 1899.)

 “Violations of Smoke Law” Evening Star,  May 6, 1905.

“Violations of Smoke Law” Evening Star, May 6, 1905.

Dodson took the Commissioners to court challenging the constitutionality of the law as a government “taking” but lost. This was the final straw for the lime kilns and Godey’s closed in 1906.

 “For Sale – Old Godey Lime Kiln.” Evening Star, May 10, 1906.

“For Sale – Old Godey Lime Kiln.” Evening Star, May 10, 1906.

Ruins of the Godey Lime Kilns post-1907. Copied from print in files of National Capital Region, National Park Service, Washington, DC – “Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” photos--Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

Ruins of the Godey Lime Kilns post-1907. Copied from print in files of National Capital Region, National Park Service, Washington, DC – “Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” photos–Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

Since their closure the kilns have had a shadowy afterlife, a bit mythologized, with the earliest history of the kilns lost. Jack Jonas, writing the Evening Star’s “The Rambler” column in October 29, 1956 took notice of the kilns, which he thought resembled a Medieval fortress and was terribly vague about the history. In the 1960s efforts were made to preserve this remnant of Washington’s industrial legacy from the highway construction which had taken a swath of the West End. On May 9, 1963 the Washington Post reported (“Way found to preserve old kilns in Georgetown [sic]”) on a plan to save two of the kilns from destruction. The Historic American Buildings Survey team documented the remains.

Ruins of the Godey Lime Kilns post-1938 (ca. 1938). “EXTERIOR FROM SOUTH.”  Copied from print in files of National Capital Region, National Park Service, Washington, D . – “Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” photos--Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

Ruins of the Godey Lime Kilns post-1938 (ca. 1938). “EXTERIOR FROM SOUTH.” Copied from print in files of National Capital Region, National Park Service, Washington, D . – “Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” photos–Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

They are a lucky survival and rare success for preservation of this unique remnant of DC’s industrial heritage — perhaps more properly, the Easby-Godey Lime Kilns.

“Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” drawings--Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

“Godey Lime Kilns (Ruins), Junction of Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway, Washington, District of Columbia.” drawings–Survey HABS DC-441; courtesy Library of Congress.

 

 *Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

(For nearly five years until June of 2015 until he decided to devote more time to researching and writing, researching and writing of this feature was by Stephen A. Hansen, an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.)

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.