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What Once Was

“High-handed usurpation and outrage”: The End of Washington City Canal

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Benjamin Severson was incensed. The work he’d devoted so much time and energy into had been undone. Despite many critics, Severson, a civil engineer and foreman under Montgomery Meigs for the  construction of the new Capitol dome, had stridently pursued re-dredging the Washington Canal, confident it would be a vital component of Washington’s booming economy.

In 1870 he oversaw the re-dredging, paid for by Congressional appropriation. Yet now, in 1872, the Board of Public Works was re-engineering the entire thing, narrowing the canal, arching it over, and turning it into a sewer. The Board of Public Works, spurred on by the Board of Health, making these changes, undoing Severson’s work. Severson threw his all into the canal question, even his great ally Thomas Green termed him a “man of savage honesty.” [1]

The Washington Canal, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was the attempt of the city founders to take advantage of, and remake part of, the natural landscape of Washington City. Having begun designs in 1804, it was only in 1810 that Latrobe wrote to a Col. Tatem in Norfolk:

“We are going this Summer to cut a Canal from the Potowmac thro’ the heart of our city to the Harbor or Eastern branch. Upon the whole the city “looks up*1 considerably. It must necessarily become one day or other a great place. A few hundred Years hence some historians may notice the labors of Yourself and perhaps mine; with a skim of praise qualified by an apology for us, in these words, “considering the infancy of the arts and of the empire.” This is all we have to hope or expect.” [2]

Peter Charles L’Enfant had included a canal in his plan for the city. George Washington a year later, in 1793, was discussing the canalization of the Tiber and James Creek with the District commissioners [3]. The new city sat at the conjunction of the Potomac River and its Eastern Branch, bounded by hills. Flowing through the middle was Tiber Creek — starting from the northern edge, flowing south to Capitol Hill, then turning sharply west and dramatically widening as it neared the Potomac River south of what became 15th Street. The width and the flat landscape it traversed west of Capitol Hill offered both advantages and disadvantages.

 

Portion of Andrew Ellicott map published in "Territory of Columbia" showing Tiber Creek in the District of Columbia. courtesy, Library of Congress.

Portion of Andrew Ellicott map published in “Territory of Columbia” showing Tiber Creek in the District of Columbia. courtesy, Library of Congress.

 It would be relatively easy to canalize (narrow and build walls). Lack of substantial change in elevation meant few locks to construct. In 1802 the Washington Canal Company was incorporated, incorporators being Thomas Tingey, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, Thomas Law, and Daniel Carroll Brent — eminent men all. A new company was incorporated in 1809. Scarce resources and a war intervened but the canal was opened November 21, 1815. [4]

In 1833 The Chesapeake and Ohio canal was extended (as the Washington Branch) eastward from its terminus at Rock Creek, curving around the cliffs of Foggy Bottom, past Braddock Rock and Camp Hill, to meet the Washington Canal (the lockkeeper’s house at today’s Constitution Avenue and 17th Street is the lone visible existing reminder). Now, as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal stretched further and further toward Cumberland, goods could be shipped directly by canal into the heart of Washington on the calm waters of canals. Joseph Goldsborough Bruff in 1847 offered the idealized view of the canal in operation.

Rare 1847 depiction of horse (or mule)-drawn barge on the Washington Canal, titled "Elements of National Thrift and Empire"; lithograph published by by Edward Weber & Co. of Baltimore after Joseph Goldsboroough Bruff. courtesy, Library of Congress.

Rare 1847 depiction of horse (or mule)-drawn barge on the Washington Canal, titled “Elements of National Thrift and Empire”; lithograph published by by Edward Weber & Co. of Baltimore after Joseph Goldsboroough Bruff. courtesy, Library of Congress.

 The Washington Canal hasn’t been treated as part of the much larger canal systems built in the original 100-square mile District of Columbia. Washington Canal was at the epicenter and provided access to the Center Market. At the center of the Mall it took a ninety degree turn and flowed toward the Eastern Branch next to the Navy Yard, with a separate branch following the existing James Creek to the Eastern Branch by the Arsenal. Potentially one could traverse the entire center city via the canal.

Not willing to pass on an opportunity, the city officials in Alexandria (still a part of the District of Columbia until 1846) proposed and built a canal from Georgetown, across the Potomac (via Aqueduct Bridge) and all the way to the Potomac River, at Alexandria’s northernmost edge. For a brief time the cities of the District of Columbia, Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria were all tied together with canal transportation. Goods (such as coal) could be loaded onto shallow draft canal barges and floated down to waiting merchants.

 

Map depicting District of Columbia canals circa 1843. copyright © Matthew B. Gilmore

Map depicting District of Columbia canals circa 1843. copyright © Matthew B. Gilmore

 

Yet the ancient technology of canals was very much being challenged by the new invention of the railroad; construction of the Washington branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was completed in 1835.

 

1839 drawing, "Tiber Creek north-east of the Capitol. Washington, D.C.," by Augustus Kollner. courtesy Library of Congress.

1839 drawing, “Tiber Creek north-east of the Capitol. Washington, D.C.,” by Augustus Kollner. courtesy Library of Congress.

 

Ultimately the railroad proved to be much more cost effective than the fragile high-maintenance canal, although the two competed for decades. The canal failed to make money and the city took ownership in 1831. After a brief historical moment of the web of canals tying the District together it began to fall apart. The eastern branch of the C&O Canal wrapping around Foggy Bottom was abandoned before the Civil War. The canal had cut businesses and industries on the river waterfront off from their neighborhood. The canal required expensive maintenance as did the bridges needed to cross the river. The Washington Canal would be challenged next.

Washington City had changed dramatically since its earliest days, the population exploding during the Civil War. All cities (not just Washington) lacked modern, adequate sewer and water systems. Washington had even been ahead of other comparable cities with the construction of the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850s. The Civil War and postwar era put new pressure on the inadequate infrastructure of the city. The Washington Canal served as the penultimate step for waste disposal — everything dumped in it was supposed to be flushed into the Potomac River and then away. Yet it didn’t work that way with any consistency anymore. Tiber Creek, one of the major natural water features of the city, provided less water as the city developed around and over it and its tributaries.

1861 Boschke map of the District of Columbia with Tiber Creek highlighted. courtesy, Kent Boese.

1861 Boschke map of the District of Columbia with Tiber Creek highlighted. courtesy, Kent Boese.

Washington Canal was huge — 140 feet wide but just four feet deep. (In comparison, the locks on the Panama Canal are only 110 feet wide).  It was also basically flat along the Mall; and the Potomac tides backed up into it. With the sewage of the center city, the waste of Center Market (cow carcasses and the like), and various other detritus, many in Washington considered the canal a positive menace (despite Severson).

The ideal image of Washington presented in 1856 by Edward Sachse’s lithograph much resembles Bruff’s 1847 image but is no more realistic.The reality, as viewed west from the Capitol,  looked more gritty by the 1860s.

 

Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west; drawn from nature by Edward Sachse, Baltimore, Maryland. courtesy Library of Congress.

Panoramic view of Washington City from the new dome of the Capitol, looking west; drawn from nature by Edward Sachse, Baltimore, Maryland. courtesy Library of Congress.

 

 

July, 1860 photo from Benjamin Brown French's album with the notation, "Public gardens or Mall; C&O Canal; Goose Creek once is Tiber now; Botanical Gardens." courtesy, Library of Congress.

July, 1860 photo from Benjamin Brown French’s album with the notation, “Public gardens or Mall; C&O Canal; Goose Creek once is Tiber now; Botanical Gardens.” courtesy, Library of Congress.

Circa 1860s stereographic view from the canal bridge with the Capitol's reflection visible in the canal adjacent to the Botanic Garden. courtesy, Library of Congress.

Circa 1860s stereographic view from the canal bridge with the Capitol’s reflection visible in the canal adjacent to the Botanic Garden. courtesy, Library of Congress.

MAR - WhatOnceWas-pic7

Circa 1863 view from the Capitol looking west-southwest showing Maryland Ave. and B St. (Independence Ave.), SW to the left, with Maine Ave., 3rd, 4½, and 6th streets SW, at the center; view includes the Mall, the armory, Armory Square Hospital, the Smithsonian castle, Washington Canal, the botanic garden, gas works, Washington Monument under construction, and the Potomac River in the far distance. courtesy, Library of Congress.

 

 

The problem of how to fix or remove the canal vexed politicians for years. In 1866, the situation requiring “immediate and vigorous” action the Washington Council passed a bill funding $75,000 for improvement to the canal on a plan substantially the same as that of Mr. Benjamin Severson.” [5]

Some remained convinced that the canal was economically viable and vital to the city’s well-being; others were convinced quite the opposite. The dysfunction of the canal threw its very legal existence into confusion. Congress had granted the land to the city for the purposes of the canal, but if the city failed to make it work, then it could be considered a default and the property revert back to the federal government. Understandably, Congress was not anxious to reclaim the land and assume the responsibility for resolving the issue.

However, Congress did appropriate money for improvements to the canal. But with only $150,000 appropriated the only remedy available was further dredging — proposed arching over would have cost spectacularly more. Plans proceeded to narrow the canal from its far-too-generous 140-foot width.

How the story continues is confused with myth and cliché. One story was that Congressman Henry L. Dawes told Alexander Shepherd (perhaps privately) that he, Dawes, would ensure no further appropriations for the District until the canal was covered. The story comes from Dawes’ daughter, Anna, and isn’t elsewhere recorded [6]. However, in the 1872 District investigation Dawes testified he did think the canal should be filled — and that when he visited the canal with the treasury department’s Supervising Architect Alfred B. Mullett one hot day they saw a number of dead cats, dogs, and horses in the canal. But there were others agitating for a more permanent resolution. The new District government had a Board of Health which took its responsibility seriously and which it considered a serious health hazard. Dr. T. (Tullio) S. Verdi, a member of the Board of Health, testified to Congress that his board had requested the Board of Public Works abate the canal nuisance. [7]

Another interested party was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry. Henry was quite experienced with canal; after all, he and his family lived quite close in the Castle and had to cross it to get into the center city. Verdi testified to the hostility Severson had expressed toward Henry’s views.

In August of 1871, the first summer of Territorial government, the Evening Star reported at length on the improvements to the canal, with wharfing and narrowing the canal from 6th to 17th Street by John H. Teemyer dredging. In March, Congress had transferred authority of the canal to the Board of Public Works. [8]

Work proceeded on improving the canal and constructing a new sewer. In January of 1872 new legislation was introduced in Congress to re-privatize the canal as The new Washington Canal and Water Power company which would draw water from the Washington Aqueduct to re-water the abandoned Washington extension of the C&O Canal and flush the canal network from Georgetown to 7th Street. Virtually everyone who was anyone was on the incorporator list (over 50 names including Governor Cooke, Shepherd, banker George Washington Riggs, former mayor Sayles Bowen, O.O. Howard, and John M. Langston). [9] The bill did not pass.

In February a curious note appeared in the Star indicating that the Board of Public Works had received a copy of the Ellicott plan of 1792 by reporting that “plans now being carried out by the District government seem to be in exact accordance with the original plan of the city, with few exceptions.”

 "The Original Plan of the City"; report appearing in the February 9, 1872 issue of the Evening Star.

“The Original Plan of the City”; report appearing in the February 9, 1872 issue of the Evening Star.

Severson got his chance to testify against the Territorial government in February — the Star headlined it “the irrepressible Severson”; Courtroom drama ensued as he was questioned.

On April 11th, Congress’s investigation of District government was consumed with testimony on the canal with various witnesses, mostly in favor of arching over the canal, though Adolf Cluss gave a very nuanced testimony, entering into the record a copy of his 1868 report but also indicating he could see reason to keep the canal open; he may have been one of the originators of the plan to draw water from the Washington Aqueduct.

In summer of 1872 things changed. Rather than construct the sewer and narrow the canal, the canal was suddenly being arched over. Arching over began as extending the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge over the Tiber north and south. Perhaps it was not the plan to arch over the entire canal. The arch of the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge was extended to the botanic gardens, then continued. The easternmost portion, from the botanic gardens to 3rd Street was covered. At this juncture any further work west would sever the east-west portion of the canal on the Mall from the branch heading south to the Eastern Branch. By late August the 7th Street bridge across the canal was torn down, the canal beneath was filled and streetcar tracks laid adjacent.

The November 20, 1872 the Evening Star proclaimed, “A Great Work Completed”:

“Yesterday afternoon, the B Street sewer, laid near the site of the old Washington City canal — that standing nuisance of the capital for nearly half a century — was completed, the connection made, and the water for the first time came rushing down, leaving the serpentine channel of the canal hard and dry.”

 It stretched a mile from 7th to 17th Streets, lined with, according to the Star, “good, sound Carolina pine.” And starting at five-and-a-half feet wide at 7th Street, growing to 12 feet at 15th Street. Contractors Gantz and Appleman had completed the work in just under six months. The party which followed on the 23rd was, as the Star also reported, the “last of the canal nuisance.” Toasts and “oysters in every style” were had. Joseph B. Stanly toasted “Severson’s Ditch (known as the canal): encompassed in brick by the board of public works.” The end of the canal was much rejoiced at. [10]

 Some would look back wistfully, like James Duhamel who wrote, “We will resign the dingy boats, foul mud banks and quaint railed bridges at 4½, 7th, and 12th Streets for the beautiful wide avenue or B Street, and the wholesome and health market conditions of today.” [11]

Severson was a sad case of lingering “canal fever” most prevalent in the 1820s — the heady days of the Erie Canal. Hardly reconciled to the transformation in Washington, he died in 1883 in Molino, Florida, as noted only by the Washington Post. [12]

 The Tiber Creek/B Street sewer briefly resurfaced in the news recently during archaeological excavations as part of the construction of the 17th Street levee designed to protect central Washington built over Tiber Creek.[13]

 

Photo showing the headwall of the Tiber Creek sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW which was exposed during recent construction of the Potomac Park levee; the Lockkeeper’s House can be seen in the near distance at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23½ feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic. courtesy, Charles LeDecker.

Photo showing the headwall of the Tiber Creek sewer outlet along 17th Street, NW which was exposed during recent construction of the Potomac Park levee; the Lockkeeper’s House can be seen in the near distance at the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Measuring 23½ feet across and 13 feet in height, the outlet is large enough to accommodate two lanes of vehicular traffic. courtesy, Charles LeDecker.

Note: Records related to the canal and the territorial government are at the National Archives; Board of Health reports are at the District of Columbia Archives.  The Washington canal has fascinated journalists and bloggers for years, including a recent article with several highly interesting images which appeared in “The Location” blog titled “A River of Shame.” Also of interest is Jennifer Barger’s September 17, 2015 Washington Post article, “When Constitution Avenue was all wet” and the August 29, 2013 Post story, “What flows beneath: Sewers under Washington.”

Acknowledgements: Washington in the Civil War by the late Robert Harrison is the definitive book on Reconstruction Washington. Thanks to Charlie LeeDecker and Kent Boese for select images.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Footnotes

[1] Interesting notes on Serverson’s life can be found in “An unusual application of wire cables from the 1850s: Benjamin Severson’s wire-tied iron girders,” by Sara E. Wermiel in Construction History (vol. 17, 2001; pp. 43-54). Newspaper coverage by the Evening Star of his testimony in the District investigations was consistently hostile.

[2] Latrobe to Col. Tatem, February 5, 1810: Latrobe Letterbook, cited in “Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the Growth and Development of Washington, 1798-1818” by Edward C. Carter II, Records of the Columbia Historical Society (vol.71/72, pp. 139-140).

[3] “To George Washington from the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 23 June 1793,” National Archives.

[4] “The Washington City Canal” by Cornelius W. Heine, Records of the Columbia Historical Society (vol. 53/56, p. 7).

[5] National Republican, April 20, 1866.

[6] “Memories of a Lifetime in Washington” by Joseph T. Kelly, Records of the Columbia Historical Society  (vol. 31/32, pp. 119-120)..

[7] Evening Star, April 11, 1872.

[8] Evening Star, August 9, 1871; Baltimore Sun, March 25, 1871.

[9] Evening Star, January 17, 1872.

[10] Evening Star, November 23, 1872.

[11] “Tiber Creek” by  James F. Duhamel, Records of the Columbia Historical Society (vol. 28, p. 225).

[12] Washington Post, April 25, 1883.

[13] “Reflections on Archaeology in the District of Columbia,” posted in the “OPinions” blog of the DC Office of Planning, May 7, 2015.

*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.

© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.


 

 

 

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