What Once Was
The Liquor License Did It: “Georgetown as a separate and independent city by law is hereby abolished.”
Published: November 19th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
On February 11, 1895 Congress enacted “An Act changing the name of Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes.” It ordered that Georgetown “shall be known as and shall constitute part of the city of Washington, the Federal Capital”; all Georgetown general laws, ordinances, and regulations were repealed and the streets and squares would be renamed and squares renumbered. Its status as a port of entry remained unchanged.
Since 1894 the legislation had been working its way through Congress in consultation with District government; that which led to this abolition began as far back at 1790.
Georgetown’s independent existence began in 1752, with the founding of the town on lands acquired from George Gordon and George Beall. Controversy dogged Georgetown from the start. Beall was unhappy with the price offered:
“If I must part with my property by force, I had better save a little, than be totally demolished. Rather than have none I accept of the lots, said to be Mr. Henderson’s and Mr. Edmonston’s, but I do hereby protest and declare that my acceptance of the said lots which is by force, shall not debar me from future redress from the Commissioners or others. If I can have the right of a British subject I ask no more. God save King George.”
The town was a tobacco port, situated at the fall line — the furthest upstream ships could navigate — the ideal location for a port. Originally eight squares, it grew as developers added new subdivisions. It even extended well up High Street (now Wisconsin Avenue) to what we now consider Glover Park. The town was incorporated in 1789. Yet the first step toward Georgetown’s eventual abolition came just one year later, in 1790.
President George Washington had been empowered by Congress to choose the site for the new federal capital, somewhere along a designated stretch of the Potomac River. The potential sites stretched from Williamsport to Georgetown. Washington’s trip examining the sites was purely for show — there could be no other site than Georgetown. The President had 10 years to oversee the creation of a new city for the nation. It could not be placed in a wilderness with any hope of success nor could not consume an existing city since the cost to acquire the property would have been astronomical. No, the land just east of the port of Georgetown would be ideal.
One “paper town” already mapped but unbuilt was Carrollsburgh which was to be situated to the west on the mouth of the Potomac’s Eastern Branch. Hamburg, a little-more-than “paper town,” lay east of Georgetown on the conjunction of the Potomac and Tiber (Goose) Creek. It is now the southern end of Foggy Bottom. Georgetown was available as a port and as a literal “bedroom community” — a place to lodge as the new city was designed and developed.
Three Presidentially-appointed commissioners oversaw the creation of Washington city. In 1800 the federal government moved to the banks of the Potomac. The District of Columbia, 10 miles by 10 miles square now included five separate jurisdictions: the city of Washington itself, Georgetown, Alexandria, Washington County, and Alexandria County. Each operated independently and with no overall governing body except Congress.
Georgetown, while no longer a part of Maryland, retained its mayors and council. Georgetown prospered as a port, enhanced by the creation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. But it was constrained geographically unlike its much larger sibling across Rock Creek. The idea of return to Maryland simmered in the background in the late 1830s.
Merger With Washington City?
In 1846 Alexandria City and County actually did take the dramatic step of retrocession. Now three entities remained — the two cities (Washington and Georgetown) and the county (Washington). The balance between jurisdictions was upset with the departure of Alexandria. By 1856 the merger of Georgetown with Washington was seriously contemplated. On June 20th of that year the Georgetown City Council debated a bill for annexation to Washington, while making note of a rival measure introduced concurrently into Congress to retrocede Georgetown and the District west of Rock Creek to Maryland.
In October 1856 the “Joint Committee on consolidation of Washington and Georgetown” met at Washington’s City Hall. As reported in 1878 in The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C. —
In the year 1856, on the 17th and 24th of September, and 15th and 17th of October, a committee from the town, appointed by the corporate authorities, met a committee of Washington City at the City Hall, for the purpose of devising some plan to consolidate the two cities; the following propositions were submitted and argued at length by the gentlemen on both sides.
“Basis of an Agreement for The Consolidation of Washington City and Georgetown.
“1. Georgetown, as such, is no longer to have any separate existence as a corporation. All of its powers of legislation and distinct corporate action are to be surrendered.
“2. Georgetown is to form two wards of Washington City, to have a representation in the Councils of Washington, as such, and to have the rights and incur the obligation of such.
“3. The people of Georgetown, in becoming citizens of Washington City, will assume their proportion of the debt of Washington, and submit to such revenue system and taxation as is or may be imposed upon the citizens of Washington City, for the purpose of paying the principal and interest of said debt.
“4. The debt of Georgetown, funded and floating, is to be assumed by Washington.
“5. The property, real and personal, now owned by Georgetown, the debts owing to it, the stocks held by it, and assets of any and every kind belonging to it, are to vest absolutely in Washington City.
“6. The obligations incurred by Georgetown, so far as they bind it, and no further, are to be assumed by Washington.
“7. The present western or Virginia Channel of the Potomac is not to be altered or in any manner affected, except by the consent of the people resident in the aforesaid two new wards, or of a majority of their representatives in each of the branches of the Corporation of Washington.
“8. The people of Georgetown, in becoming citizens of Washington, will assume their just and fair proportion of all the obligations, past and future, incurred by Washington City.
“9. Georgetown and Washington City will unite in an effort to have any plan of union agreed upon carried out by appropriate legislation by Congress.
“10. Any plan agreed upon by the joint committee is to be submitted to the people of Washington City and Georgetown, respectively, for ratification, and shall only be effectual when ratified by both cities and confirmed by Congress.”
The committee failed to come to agreement on control of the Potomac River (clause 7) and agreed to part friends while failing to come to terms on consolidation.
At the same time consolidation with Washington City was discussed, the construction of a new custom house began. Georgetown was established as a port of entry to the United States by an Act of Congress approved March 22, 1779. The Custom House and Georgetown’s role as a port of entry became an increasingly visible part of Georgetown’s identity. The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report on the Custom House indicates the very early date of Georgetown as a port of entry:
“It is believed that the port of Washington /i.e. Georgetown/ antedates all in existence today; the Williamsburg port may have been created slightly earlier but was abolished many years ago.”
In 1852 Georgetown had presented its case to Congress for construction of the Custom House. In 1856 the issue was raised again, this time, the issue was where to build it for the District.
The problem was referred to a Senate committee on commerce. This committee, composed of Senators Hamlin, Dodge, Stuart, Seward, Clay and Benjamin, made an investigation and Chairman Hamlin reported: “There is nothing that can be called commerce in Washington, and there is something of it in Georgetown.” Consequently Congress appropriated $65,000 to build a custom house and post office in Georgetown. The building was completed in 1858 at a total cost of $55,468.00. (HABS report, page 9.)
Nevertheless, the port of entry status remained tenuous and threatened when relocation of the Custom House to Washington was suggested: “In 1864 Senate Bill No. 210 was introduced proposing the abolishment of Georgetown as the port of entry and making the official port in Washington City.” (HABS report, page 10.)
After the Civil War the consolidation question rose again, prompted by the threatened relocation of the capitol to the Midwest. The Washington Star related that a “prominent member of our municipal government,” writing under the byline “An old citizen of the new school,” presented the advantages of union of the two cities. The combined amenities would “. . . give éclat to a great metropolis…[and] attract to its precincts, as permanent dwellers the best people of every section of the Union.”
In 1871 the governance of the District of Columbia was revolutionized. Congress abolished all three bodies and created a territorial government for the entire District, with a Presidentially-appointed governor and bicameral legislature.
This was the first move to abolish Georgetown — its city charter was revoked. The District was now divided into 22 election districts, two of them comprising much of Georgetown. But, curiously, the act of Congress of February 21, 1871, which directed “that portion of said District included within the limits of the city of Georgetown shall continue to be known as the city of Georgetown.” The laws and ordinances of each of the respective jurisdictions remained in effect also, leading to confusion and lawsuits in the years to come.
How About—“West Washington”?
Retaining or changing the name of Georgetown itself provoked discussion and controversy. The Star on August 27, 1873, weighed various issues and concerns regarding the name “Georgetown.” When travelling Georgetowners would often indicate they were from Washington, Georgetown having no special significance abroad. The editorial suggested that the mooted “West Washington” designation might be a fine replacement but public consent was needed. Even though it had no legal existence, “Georgetown” persisted, and persisted to the chagrin of some, it seems. In the Star‘s September 4, 1873 edition “A Georgetown Old Fogy” opined —
“Drop the name, Mr. Editor: As Georgetown has no charter and is to all intents and purposes a part of Washington city, it ought to lose its name entirely…if it is desirable to continue the post office in Georgetown, let it be called West Washington, as others have suggested.”
On September 12, 1873 — the same day Alexander R. Shepherd became governor of the District — the Star ran a letter to the editor from “Georgetonian” in response to the Star’s August 27th editorial with a rousing call for independence from Washington:
“I am opposed to the proposition [of changing the name of Georgetown to West Washington] and regard it as extremely foolish indeed.
“Georgetown does not aspire to be part of Washington. We do not want to be united with it. We would rather paddle our own canoe. We pride ourselves on being an ‘aristocratic old cemetery,’ as one of our divines styles it, and we would rather be excused from joining hands with our fashionable neighbor.”
“You might as well suggest joining Brooklyn to New York City!
“We are a city of about 25,000 or 30,000 inhabitants, and fully able to have a name of our own and care for ourselves. . . . Let Washington mind her own business and take care of itself, and that is all the Georgetown people want.” (Georgetown’s population actually hovered around 11,000.)
On November 24, 1873 the Star reported rumors of petitions for annexation of Georgetown to the City of Washington and abolition of the name Georgetown. In the Star’s February 24, 1874 “The Annexation Question” editorial stated, “Annexation of Georgetown to Washington is no longer an open question; Georgetown is annexed to Washington with its present boundaries. . . .” But the name of Georgetown now is an incubus upon her prosperity.” The name “West Washington” wasn’t considered a good option either. Basically, retaining the name Georgetown confused folks.
In 1874 the territorial form of government was abolished, but the old governing structures were not restored. Three Presidentially-appointed commissioners temporarily took the reins of the District — including Georgetown, unlike in the 1790s. The Commission was made permanent in 1878.
But the moves to abolish Georgetown continued; the plan for renumbering the houses in Georgetown was devised by Commissioner Major William Twining in 1879 — house numbering would now be continued along the plan of Washington. Street names would be changed also to conform with Washington’s. In 1880 the plan was implemented. The October 7, 1880 Star editorialized, deploring the failure of the District Commissioners to adopt the Star’s own suggested renaming for Washington streets as well. The “meager and unmeaning” alphabetical system should have been replaced with the names of eminent Americans. (Justice Alexander Hagner was a great proponent of the eminent men nomenclature which had also been suggested by the Board of Public Works.)
The December 7, 1880 issue the Star took another step to wipe out the name Georgetown — referencing “Georgetown, i.e., West Washington”; on December 9th it became “West Washington, i.e., Georgetown” and soon “West Washington, née Georgetown.” The National Republican on February 8, 1881 poked fun at the use of “née” as ungrammatical.
The Sunday Herald on January 2, 1881 referred to “West Washington,” distinct from Washington, and how that hurts Washington in the ranking of cities by population. It is unknown who imposed or encouraged this use of “West Washington.” Maps began to show “West Washington,” and some institutions took on the moniker including the West Washington Hotel. In 1887 the new subdivision of Burleith was officially called “Addition to West Washington.”
But “Georgetown” was persistent. So was opposition. Barton’s Historical sketches of Washington and Environs published in 1884 freely mingles references to West Washington and Georgetown in its lengthy biographical profile section. Often the difference was split and both names used: “Georgetown’s Boom; the rapid advance of real estate in West Washington.” The May 21, 1887 issue of the Washington Critic published an article that included some prescient words:
“Some twenty years ago a representative business man of Washington, since dead, whose name was associated with all public affairs of that time, remarked to friends: ‘The investing public will wake up to the fact some day that Georgetown is to be the residence portion of the capital, and they will then be sorry they didn’t invest in property over there.
“All the large cities in the country build westward. Why? Because the prevailing breezes comes [sic] from that direction, and those who are wealthy and able to choose their place of residence go where they can get the freshest air.”
A week later the Washington Critic headline, “The Boom Continues!,” was followed by many more testimonials to the desirability of Georgetown. Putting lower Rock Creek (the area below P Street) into a tunnel was promoted as a must-do project.
Sunday Liquor Sales Hasten Abolition
In 1887 Irish immigrant saloon-keeper John Curtin, who lived until 1904, was prosecuted for selling liquor on Sunday. That was the next key event on the road to the abolition of Georgetown. Curtin’s was in a venerable building (now demolished) at 3258 M Street, NW, a block from the Georgetown market.
He hired Daniel E. Cahill, a lawyer noted for finding loopholes in the District’s laws. The case progressed on appeal upwards through the courts. From its start in 1888 through 1890 the question of what laws actually were in effect in Georgetown, as noted by the Star on January 7th, vexed the perplexed courts. Sunday liquor sales were prohibited in the city of Washington. Georgetown’s own liquor regulations had been passed years earlier in 1853. What laws governed Georgetown now, since the 1871 amalgamation? The question had not been raised since the 1870s.
Justice Alexander Hagner ruled that the 1853 law, now having been brought to the court’s attention, could no longer be enforced given that the Georgetown municipality had been abolished. (The ruling is rather puzzling in the face of the territorial law which continued the regulations and the fact that the District police board licensed liquor sellers since 1868; presumably a license to sell was governed by different regulations than when sales were legal.)
Soon thereafter, in 1892, the annexation movement returned, with a petition presented to Congress requesting abolition of Georgetown.
On January 7, 1893 the Star reported under the headline “Separate in Name Only” that the Assistant Attorney (Corporation Counsel) for the District, S.T. [Sidney Taylor] Thomas had given his favorable opinion on the pending bill to abolish the name Georgetown, suggesting there was no reason but sentiment to keep the name and oppose the bill. By January 27th the Star reported that Senator Faulkner was authorized to report the abolition bill out of the Senate District Committee.
Time passed. In March of 1894 the Commissioners referred the bill back to Thomas for advice on customs law and the question of Georgetown’s status as a port of entry; a protective clause was then added. In April 1894 the Washington Post published a letter to the editor from M. Ashford, president of the Real Estate Title Company stating that the real estate title companies had no objection to the abolition bill, as long as the squares in Georgetown were renumbered removing duplication with their Washington counterparts.
With the clause protecting the port of entry status, the law was passed abolishing Georgetown in 1895. A second renaming of streets took place to correct some infelicities of the 1880 renaming. Squares were renumbered also. Georgetown was gone.
 Hugh T. Taggart, “Old Georgetown.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 11, p. 161 (1908).
 “Retrocession of Georgetown” [favoring retrocession to the state of Maryland]; “Speech of Samuel McKenney, on certain retrocession resolutions, adopted in general meeting of the citizens of Georgetown, D. C., Feb. 12, 1838” [favoring retrocession to the state of Maryland]. Report of the select committee on the memorial of the citizens of Georgetown, etc. Maryland House of Delegates (1839).
 Richard P. Jackson, The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C. From 1751 To 1878. R.O. Polkinhorn, printer; pp. 47-49 (1878).
 “Port of Washington Founded 1799,” Washington Post (Dec. 22, 1929). This article was cited in the HABS Custom House report.
 “Memorial of the citizens of the District of Columbia to the senate and house of representatives of the United States, to purchase a building for custom-house, etc., in Georgetown, D. C.” (1852).
Thanks to Carlton Fletcher, John Ferrari’s Streets of Washington blog, and to Jerry McCoy of the DC Public Library.
Elmer Epenetus Barton, ed., Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and Environs. E.E. Barton, publisher, Washington, DC (1884).
Adam Costanzo, “George Washington’s Washington: Local and Federal Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic.” Unpublished mss. from dissertation “Federal Town, Local City: Building a Home and a National Capital in Early Washington, DC 1790-1850.”
“When Georgetown Was West Washington,” The Georgetown Metropolitan (July 24, 2013).
Richard P. Jackson, The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C. From 1751 To 1878. R.O. Polkinhorn, printer; pp. 47-49 (1878).
Hugh T. Taggart, “Old Georgetown,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 11 (1908).
William Tindall, Origin and government of the District of Columbia. Washington, DC. (1909).
“Of District Interest,” Washington Post (Mar. 31, 1894);
“U. S. Customhouse and Post Office (now U. S. Post Office, Georgetown Station) 1221 31st Street, N.W. Washington (Georgetown), District of Columbia.” Historic American Buildings Survey (1969).
*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.