What Once Was
Kidwell’s gambit: One man’s gamble and the creation of Potomac Park
Published: September 20th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
[Editor’s Note: All addresses referenced in this article are located in the city’s Northwest quadrant, hence the repetitive use of the customary ‘NW’ designation.]
“Kidwell Meadows — riverfront views!,” contemporary advertisements might have read had John Kidwell’s bold real estate gambit succeeded. His attempt failed but the federal government’s long legal efforts to quash it led to the creation of Potomac Park.
In 1869 the City of Washington was struggling to remake itself after the chaotic years of the Civil War. The population of the District of Columbia had nearly doubled, surging from 75,000 to over 130,000. This population pressure encouraged developers to eye property outside the city itself. Development to date was geographically constrained, the city bounded as it was by the Potomac River to the west and the Eastern Branch to the south and the hills lining Boundary Street (today’s Florida Avenue) on the north. Space for new development had been much less a concern before the war — so much so that the one-third of the District which was Alexandria County had been let go, retroceded to Virginia. Shortly after retrocession development did creep forward, first, in 1854, with Uniontown established across the Eastern Branch. Soon other residential development jumped northward over Boundary Street to the hills of Mount Pleasant.
Georgetown druggist John L. Kidwell took another tack and looked in another direction, this time toward the Potomac River. Cities like Boston had been nibbling away at the rivers and bays on which they sat, creating more land and quickly developing it. Up to this point Washington hadn’t needed any more land. But opportunity presented itself as the Potomac River continued to silt up. Agriculture in Washington’s Montgomery County hinterland led to soil being washed into the river. Below the fall line at Georgetown the river widened, slowed, and the silt deposited. The land around Analostan Island slowly fluctuated, as did that on the opposite City of Washington shore. These deposits built up, slowly taking more and more solid form.
What Kidwell saw is very well illustrated by an Army Corps of Engineers map of 1871.
This map shows river soundings (depth) and what seems to be land which is labelled “cane brakes,” both to the south of Foggy Bottom and on the north side of Long Bridge. “Cane brakes” — or as usually labeled, canebrakes — are a kind of wild grass. Labelling the areas on the map as canebrakes implied land overgrown with thickets of grass. The Army engineers report from 1870 states that “[a]t low water the soil is entirely uncovered and has become so firm as to support the weight of a man.” Kidwell could see this area from his house on the heights of Georgetown at Prospect and Frederick (now 34th) Streets which had a commanding view over Georgetown, Washington, and the Potomac. (The house exists still and is now known as Halcyon House.)
Kidwell decided he would lay claim to this land slowly rising from the Potomac. He went to the Washington County surveyor, B.D. (Benjamin) Carpenter, and paid for a land survey.The land survey resembled the cane brakes found on the 1871 Engineers map. A clearer comparison is visible in another map prepared for the court case stemming from Kidwell’s claim — the cane brakes from 21st Street eastward to 17th Street were not included in the survey.
In addition to “Kidwell Meadows,” the land south of Foggy Bottom, Kidwell laid claim to “Kidwell’s Land” — cane brakes on the north side of Long Bridge. The survey of this area is much more difficult to find as no copy exists in the Office of the Surveyor or in the published legal papers accompanying the lawsuit. A copy (or the original) was recently sold.
This survey depicted the cane brakes on the north side of Long Bridge. Kidwell’s clever scheme was made possible by much earlier legislation. In 1839 a resolution was passed in Congress which revived a Maryland procedure for claiming “vacant” lands. The procedure had fallen into abeyance when the United States took jurisdiction over the District in 1801 and failed to provide the proper personnel or substitute procedure. Now “lands in the County of Washington” and outside the limits of the City of Washington, could be claimed. Applications went through the General Land Office, which directed the claim to the surveyor of Washington County who would map the property. The property now delineated could be claimed and paid for.
Kidwell had begun his career as a druggist in Georgetown, moving from Montgomery County to Georgetown in 1836. By 1840 the 20-year-old Kidwell was one of the petitioners for the re-chartering of the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank. In 1854 Kidwell was confidently advertising his self-branded medicines in the Evening Star.
Beech drop, or cancer root was a homeopathic treatment and can still be purchased as ointment.
For much of his career he prospered. Following the Civil War, he relocated his apothecary business to Pennsylvania Avenue, near 14th Street. Tax records of the day reveal in the 1860s he sold liquor retail and wholesale and soda water at his Pennsylvania Avenue shop. He had two carriages in Georgetown (a fancy Rockaway carriage and another more ordinary).
Kidwell travelled in important circles. A curious project he was part of was the National Junction Railway which was incorporated in 1869 by the Washington City Council. Kidwell was an incorporator, joining in with other local eminences including James A. Magruder, C.H. Cragin, John W. Thompson, Hallet Kilbourn, Alexander R. Shepherd, and William H. Tenney. Magruder was Collector of Customs in Georgetown; Cragin was a physician; Tenney was a Georgetown businessman and member of the Metropolitan Police board; Shepherd a local businessman and politician.
The railway’s route would be from Georgetown, across Rock Creek, along S, T, or U Streets to the Baltimore and Ohio depot, thence either to the Potomac, or to the Eastern Branch near the Navy Yard. A grand Union depot was project for a site along the route at 3rd or 4th Street and a depot near the origin point at the Aqueduct in Georgetown. It was re-incorporated several more time by Congress with widely varying routes, including once with an intriguing entirely underground route (predating Metro by a century). Nothing seems to have ever come of any of these plans.
Kidwell was also a primer mover in the Seneca quarry business and a number of controversial business enterprises during the Territorial government and after.
It is unknown what inspired Kidwell in 1867 to claim and purchase those alluvial lands in the Potomac. There was a validity to Kidwell’s contention. By 1861 the map of the District of Columbia done by Albert Boschke indicated some kind of solidity on the Potomac shore where Kidwell would plat his “meadows” a few years later. Boschke’s map is the most well-known one from that era and highly respected — it was used as the map of record by District government for the following decades.
Kidwell’s initial plat was rejected by the General Land Office; two years later in 1869 it was approved.
As reported in an article headlined “The Kidwell Bottom Grab[;] A bogus claim” in the Evening Star of April 24, 1886, “Upon the re-examination and the approval of the plat of survey by the examiner general, patent was issued to Mr. Kidwell December 6, 1869. The amount paid for this tract was $23.80, or fifty cents per acre.” The examiner, Stephen J. Dallas, visited the site and found “Kidwell’s Meadows” to be three and a half to four feet above low water and a foot above high tide. His additional patent to “Kidwell’s Land”, the island accreting along Long Bridge seems not to have been pursued.
His claim did not go unnoticed. On January 27, 1870 the Evening Star querulously reported on Kidwell’s recent patent (granted the previous November) as “A curious transaction,” summarized as follows:
The audacity of trying to make this claim at the heart of the nation’s capital is almost breathtaking. Virtually no one else seems to have even considered it.
Ownership of or title to the riverbed and any land created out of it was ambiguous. Maryland conveyed jurisdiction of its portion of the District to the federal government; land ownership was unaffected. The lands of the nineteen proprietors in what became the city of Washington did not claim the riverbed. The riverbed did not seem to belong to the city. If not the city it would fall under jurisdiction of the County and be susceptible to the vacant land law.
Congress took notice too; as early as 1873 it was investigating land patents on the Potomac. Kidwell’s was the most recent and the other of note was that of John Moore in 1853 staking claim to three acres of riverine land around the Three Sisters islands.
The idea of reclaiming land along the Potomac was not new. John Clagett Proctor would write in the Evening Star that early Washington resident Christian Hines pondered the idea in the early 1800s. Filling the flats had been proposed during earlier investigations on the conditions of the Georgetown and Washington waterfront. In 1879 Engineer Commissioner William Twining had modified existing proposals for reclamation of the flats. Maps show the incorporation the reclaimed land into the urban fabric of the city.
At the same time some maps show Kidwell’s claim superimposed.
In February 1881 the Potomac flooded, adding an urgency to stalled land reclamation plans. This was the worst flood Washington had seen to date (only to be surpassed by another a few years later in 1889).
President Garfield, shot at Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac Station on July 2, 1881 suffered the rigors of a Washington summer until September. His two months of failed convalescence and death brought the glare of publicity to potentially unhealthy conditions at the White House.
On January 26, 1882 the House Committee on the District of Columbia issued a scathing report on the “Reclamation of the marches of the cities of Washington and Georgetown” dismissing all of the litigants’ claims. The subsequent July 1882 legislation reflects the report:
“By the Act of August 2, 1882, c. 375, 22 Stat. 198, Congress made an appropriation for improving the Potomac River in the vicinity of Washington with reference to the improvement of navigation, the establishment of harbor lines, and the raising of the flats, under the direction of the Secretary of War, and in accordance with the plan and report made in compliance with the River and Harbor Act approved March 3, 1881, and the reports of the Board of Engineers made in compliance with the resolution of the Senate of December 13, 1881.
“This act made it the duty of the Attorney General to examine all claims of title to the premises to be improved under this appropriation, and to institute a suit or suits at law or in equity ‘against any and all claimants of title under any patent which, in his opinion, was by mistake or was improperly or illegally issued for any part of the marshes or flats within the limits of the proposed improvement.'”
Kidwell died on February 16, 1885; his funeral was held at Trinity Roman Catholic Church, and he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. The Evening Star and Washington Post both narrated some of his ambitions and fluctuating fortunes. He had died in reduced circumstances, and having been paralyzed two years before his death. After Kidwell’s death his heirs attempted to make good his claim to the Kidwell Meadows.
The February 18, 1885 issue of the National Republican critically described the “no-man’s land” patents as follows:
“Congress passed the Act approved August 5, 1886, c. 930, 24 Stat. 335, entitled ‘An act to provide for protecting the interests of the United States in the Potomac River flats, in the District of Columbia’ to clear title and extinguish any claims such as Kidwell’s.”
The parties to the suit were Kidwell’s family: class two (2), claiming under the Kidwell patent, etc., namely, trustee Martin F. Morris, Henry Wells, Edward H. Wilson, Catherine A. Kidwell (his widow), his children, Emma McCahill, John W. Kidwell, Francis L. Kidwell, Ida Hyde, and son-in-law George A. Hyde. Most of the other claims were for riparian rights—for the properties abutting the river, such as Chesapeake and Ohio canal or those squares 148, 129, 89, 63, 22, and square south of square 12, and lands inherited by descendants of proprietor Robert Peter (patriarch of the family more well-known for Tudor Place in Georgetown), or for those owning the wharves along the river. Reclaiming land out of the river would abridge those riparian rights—which included access to the river.
The District of Columbia Supreme Court heard the case in 1895 and ruled against the claimants. Known as Morris v. United States (the “Potomac Flats” case), it was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Was the United States spending millions of dollars having Corps of Engineers reclaim land out of the Potomac that belonged to Kidwell (or someone else)? The title to the land needed to be cleared before decisions could be made about what the new land would be used for. The legal team weighed in and produced a tour de force: eight volumes of legal research (in tiny print), including many maps, were generated out of the case, going as far back as the earliest (and most official) maps of the District.
Since the Maryland-Virginia boundary had been recently litigated, the Court noted, “We do not think it necessary to enter at length or minutely into the history of the long dispute between Virginia and Maryland in respect to the boundary line. It is sufficient for our present purpose to say that the grant to Lord Baltimore in unmistakable terms included the Potomac River. . . .”
The court, then, was dismissive of the Kidwell patent:
“It is alleged in the bill that the patent to Kidwell was issued without authority of law, and was and is null and void, and several grounds are set forth for each allegation. The main contentions on behalf of the government are that the land covered by the patent was, when it issued, within the limits of the City of Washington, and was therefore excepted from the operations of the resolution of 1839; that the land was at the time of the cession a part of the bed of the Potomac River, and subject to tidal overflow, and was therefore reserved to the United States for such public uses as ordinarily pertain to the riverfront of a large city; that said land, as part of the bed of the Potomac River and subject to overflow by the tides, was not the subject of a patent under the resolution of 1839, and the General Land Office and its functionaries were without authority to grant a patent therefor, and that the patent was obtained by fraud and was ineffectual by reason of certain specified irregularities.”
The main contentions on behalf of the federal government were that “the land covered by the patent was, when it issued, within the limits of the City of Washington, and was therefore excepted from the operations of the resolution of 1839; that the land was at the time of the cession a part of the bed of the Potomac River, and subject to tidal overflow, and was therefore reserved to the United States for such public uses as ordinarily pertain to the riverfront of a large city; that said land, as part of the bed of the Potomac River and subject to overflow by the tides, was not the subject of a patent under the resolution of 1839, and; the General Land Office and its functionaries were without authority to grant a patent therefor, and that the patent was obtained by fraud and was ineffectual by reason of certain specified irregularities.”
The Supreme Court noted impatiently that “[i]n the opinion of the court below, the questions involved were elaborately considered, and they have been fully discussed before us in the oral and printed arguments of the respective counsel.” In fact, one entire volume of the eight total making up the records of the case is devoted to Kidwell’s claim. Much time had spent minutely debating the solidity of the land claimed by Kidwell, including an extended discussion of whether the land was solid enough to be farmed and how cows might have reached it and whether they would have had to swim.
Whether Congress should exercise its power over these reserved lands by dredging, and thus restoring navigation and fishery, or by reclaiming them from the waters for wharfing purposes, or to convert them into public parks, or by subjecting them to sale, could only be determined by Congress, and not by the functionaries of the land office.
Surveyor B.D. Carpenter died in 1895; hid role in the Kidwell controversy went unmentioned.
As the lawsuits churned, more land rose from the river. In 1897 Congress did an end run and declared the reclaimed land a public park:
“CHAP. 375.-An Act Declaring the Potomac Flats a public park, under the name of the Potomac Park.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the entire area formerly known as the Potomac Flats and now being reclaimed, together with tidal reservoirs, be, and the same are hereby, made and declared a public park, under the name of the Potomac Park, and to be forever held and used as a park for the recreation and pleasure of the people. Approved, March 3, 1897.”
Legally, it was no contest. In 1899 the Supreme Court decided Morris v. United States and awarded the land to the United States. The court ruled that Kidwell’s patents were issued in error: “It was not the intention of Congress, by the Resolution of February 16, 1839, to subject lands lying beneath the waters of the Potomac, and within the limits of the District of Columbia.” Other claimants would (eventually) be compensated for loss of access to the river, with claims still being filed in 1913.
Kidwell’s bold attempt to develop fifty acres of waterfront property was obliterated by the federal government; the legacy of the struggle is Potomac Park as well as a wealth of maps and historical research on the origins of the District.
 Annual report of the Chief of Engineers to the Secretary of War for the Year 1870; page 517.
 Laws of The Corporation of the City of Washington Passed by The Sixty-Sixth Council, 1869; Page 225ff.
 [Alleged Potomac Land Patent] Report to accompany Bill S-2655; February 23, 1885.
 Swamp-lands on the Potomac River, Letter from the Attorney-General in answer to a House resolution relative to Swamp-lands on the Potomac River; January 21, 1873.
 “Old Glass House once guarded Potomac Park Site; Vision of Christian Hines”; Evening Star July 26, 1936
Thanks are due to Nathan Dorn, Law Library Curator of Rare Books at the Library of Congress for access to LC’s copy of Morris v. United States; to Neal Isenstein, Office of the Surveyor of the District of Columbia; staff at the National Archives.
“Death of Mr. John L. Kidwell.” <em>Evening Star</em> (Feb.17, 1885).
“Death of John L. Kidwell.: The Claimant of the River Flats Dies at His Home.” <em>Washington Post</em> (Feb. 17, 1885).
“Had Faith in The City: Dr. Kidwell’s Foresight in Regard to Potomac Flats.” <em>Washington Post</em> (Apr. 30, 1895).
Morris v. United States, 174 U.S. 196 (1899). Argued the previous year on Oct. 26, 27, 28, 31; Nov. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7; decided May 1, 1899.
Catherine A. Kidwell v. Emma McCahill (et al.), Equity Cause No. 14856. Suit filed Jun. 28, 1893; court order filed Aug. 3, 1898.
Richard W. Stephenson, “From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902.” <em>Phillips Map Society Occasional Papers</em>, Occasional Paper No. 6 (2014).
Drew Robarge, “Washington, D.C.’s 19th Century Reclamation Project,” <em>The Atlantic</em> (Mar. 28, 2011).
Frederick Gutheim & Antoinette J. Lee, <em>Worthy of the Nation: Washington, DC, from L’Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission</em> Johns Hopkins University Press, 2nd Ed. (2008).
“East Potomac Park.” Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, HABS DC-692.
“Halcyon House.” Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, HABS DC-69.
Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The District of Columbia; its government and administration. Johns Hopkins University Press (1928).
Nancy S. Seasholes, Gaining ground: a history of landmaking in Boston. MIT Press (2003).
“History and Archeology of the District of Columbia Monumental Core,” National Park Service Regional Archeology Program paper, part 2 (http://tinyurl.com/jrlvxtc). <https://www.nps.gov/rap/archeology/NAMA_HAMC_05b.htm>
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. 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.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.