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What Once Was

Making Washington’s “Swampoodle”: Irish Neighborhood in the Tiber Valley

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

As 2017 drew to a close, the winning name for the new park in NoMa at 3rd and L Streets, NE was Swampoodle. This curious, antiquated, whimsical name, quite literally from the mists of DC history, had won the park naming contest. It had a quirky appeal. But what of the original Swampoodle?

Swampoodle was the epithet given to an area of several blocks around the intersection of North Capitol and K Streets. The name was applied in the 1850s, although when exactly is unknown. The earliest reference I have been able to find is from 1855 — which is several years earlier than any other recorded reference historians and researchers have produced to date. The Daily Union of October 3, 1855, reported (copying from the previous day’s Evening Star): “Fatal shooting affair — A place called Swampoodle, (in the Northern Liberties,) and a disreputable locality, was last night the scene of a lamentable occurrence.”

Earliest found reference to the name "Swampoodle" from the Washington Daily Union, October 3, 1855. image--Library of Congress.

Earliest found reference to the name “Swampoodle” from the Washington Daily Union, October 3, 1855. image–Library of Congress.

This may not be the christening of the neighborhood or locale but it is the closest to it we have. It begins in violence, suitable to its reputation. Some other clues about the name: Swampoodle is part of, in some way, the larger area called the Northern Liberties. “Northern Liberties” is an unfamiliar one in Washington, DC history and refers to a rather ill-defined area arcing north of H Street to Boundary Street, spanning (at least) from Mt. Vernon Square to North Capitol Street. The Northern Liberties Market situated on Mt. Vernon Square took the name from its location at the west end.

“Northern Liberties is most probably a slang designation, possibly derived from the same name of a locality in Philadelphia,” according to Samuel D. Busey in his 1898 book, Pictures of The City of Washington In the Past, which contains the most extensive nearly contemporaneous discussion of neighborhood names. Busey was convinced that the name “Northern Liberties” was imported from Philadelphia.

Generally, according to Busey, “The origin of local slang appellations can often be traced to some colloquial jargon or abbreviation which strikes the average vulgarian or wit with force, and by constant repetition become usage with a coterie of kindred spirits, and by associations extend the area of its popular use until it is accepted as a racy expression of thought or appropriate designation of a locality. Quite often such phrases and words have originated in deprecatory thought expressed in vulgar conception or ridicule, but such could not have been the origin of the appellation of Northern Liberties, so appropriately applied to the northern portion of this city, which, at that period and before, was so interspersed with small morasses, springs, sluggish streams and slashes as to unfit it for human habitations.” [1]

Busey continued describing over 40 other neighborhoods (or locales), including “English Hill” and “Swampoodle.” English Hill, just west of Swampoodle, extended from 1st to 4th and from E to H Streets, NW. The Swampoodle he described grew (and shrank) over time:

“Swampoodle” was the term originally applied to the settlement along H Street near the Tiber (between North Capitol and First Street, East), and finally it included Pearce’s meadow, a great hunting ground extending to the boundary of the city. …  In recent years the eastern line of the ‘poodle’ has been contracted to the limits of G, K, Fourth, East, and First Streets, West. . . .” [2]

Swampoodle in 1855 already had a reputation as a rough neighborhood -– “disreputable.” But the reputation had not made the name so recognizable that the addition of the hint by the Daily Union (“in the Northern Liberties”) wasn’t considered a redundancy. Very soon the name Swampoodle could (and would) stand on its own in news accounts. By 1861 it would serve as a useful photograph caption to Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Brown French.

Detail from Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Brown French’s “View looking N from the Capitol Roof, 27 June 1861” photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Detail from Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Brown French’s “View looking N from the Capitol Roof, 27 June 1861” photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

On a photograph “View looking N from the Capitol Roof, 27 June 1861” French called out a number of items in the vista, near and far — —including the Baltimore and Ohio railroad station, U.S Government Printing Office, Glenwood Cemetery (far in the distance), and “Swampoodle” [quotation marks his]. It’s a remarkable bit of contemporary documentation; rarely is a neighborhood shown so clearly so early. It indicates, as far as French is concerned, that Swampoodle was the block bounded by North Capitol Street on the west, First Street NE on the east, G Street NE on the south, and H Street NE on the north. It was bisected by Jackson Alley. The area is clearly recognizable on the 1857 Boschke map. The block of Swampoodle is immediately below the large number “4” on the map (which indicated the city ward of the time). The black rectangle to the west is the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the Tiber Creek coils through the center of the area.

Detail from 1857 Boschke map (“Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government: respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of North America”). Library of Congress.

Detail from 1857 Boschke map (“Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government: respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of North America”). Library of Congress.

But as to the origin of the name — if “Northern Liberties” was a Philadelphia import (Busey was convinced of it), why not Swampoodle? No Washington, DC historian or researcher seems to have taken note of the existence of a Swampoodle neighborhood in Philadelphia in the 19th century. Perhaps “Swampoodle” migrated from the City of Brotherly Love. Myths have been spun about the name’s origin, citing swampiness and puddle-ness of the area. Perhaps the term is more of a gang name derivation. Both were Irish Catholic neighborhoods, suggesting an ultimate origin of the name.

The Irish have a puckish diminutiveness in their humor — for instance, an inhabitant of Liverpool is a Liverpudlian (that is, pool becomes puddle). Why not a similar derivation for Swampoodle? The Irish were well-known for their hunting dogs (water spaniels or “bog dogs”). These dogs had remarkable coats of lush curly hair and do resemble a very large poodle. It would be easy enough for an Irishman to dismiss another Irishman as a “bog dog” or, better, “Swamp poodle.” It is suggestive, what with the same name applied to two different Irish neighborhoods in two different cities. It may simply be an in-joke for which we have no context and is no longer comprehensible to us.

Again, as Busey wrote, “Sometimes the neighborhoods would be called after the rival crowds of young men or hoodlums, such as the ‘Gum-balls,’ ‘Round Tops,’ and ‘Never Sweats,’ of the First Ward; the ‘Razors,’ ‘‘Blood-tubs,’ and ‘Pointers,’ of the Second; the ‘Chunkers,’ ‘Nineters,’ ‘Crow Hills,’ of the Northern Liberties, and the ‘Rams,’ of Capitol Hill. [3]

Busey also noted the existence of a “Paddy Mageetown” where “the occupants were from the Emerald Isle, and were good drinkers and a jolly set.” And indeed, to answer Busey’s own question, the federal census and newspaper accounts document the presence of numerous Patrick Magees (or McGees) in mid-19th century Washington.

This is not to dismiss that the area had a marshy or boggy terrain. A close look at that 1857 map does indicate interesting terrain. Square 678 is marked out with what resemble clumps of grass — a cartographic convention for marsh; Square 720 is dotted — a convention for orchard.

B.B. French’s June 1861 photograph shows a rural cluster of houses and trees; the Tiber is not visible, nor anything one might characterize as “swampiness.” The area was the center of the Tiber Creek Valley. Capitol Hill lay south, reaching Delaware Avenue on the west and D and E Streets on the north. English Hill lay west, bounded by New Jersey Avenue on the east and 4th Street on the west. Over 150 years of urban development and road grading have obscured the old contours. Over four million tons of fill extended Capitol Hill north to allow for the construction of Union Station.

Squares 678 & 720; detail from 1857 Boschke map. Library of Congress.

Squares 678 & 720; detail from 1857 Boschke map. Library of Congress.

In 1890 Congress passed legislation for a replacement for that Government Printing Office (GPO) very visible in the B.B. French photograph. The hearing testimony, not previously referenced in any discussion of Swampoodle, contains nuggets of choice perceptions of Swampoodle. The location of a new GPO, as determined in the legislation was to be somewhere in the area bounded by 1st Street NE on the east side, B Street on the south, 9th Street NW on the west and H Street on the north, an area virtually coextensive with Swampoodle.

Testimony was called from long-time residents (and local property owners) regarding the suitability of various proposed plots of land.

Testimony about land conditions in Swampoodle from “Site for Government Printing Office. Testimony Taken Before the Senate Committee on Printing, Respecting the Character of Block 678, The Site Proposed by The Commission Appointed to Select a Site for The New Government Printing Office, as to Its Suitability for So Large a Building” (pg. 98).

Testimony about land conditions in Swampoodle from “Site for Government Printing Office. Testimony Taken Before the Senate Committee on Printing, Respecting the Character of Block 678, The Site Proposed by The Commission Appointed to Select a Site for The New Government Printing Office, as to Its Suitability for So Large a Building” (pg. 98).

Edward Baldwin, a local builder, testified to the lack of “bogginess” or “marshiness” in square 678, indicating the clay soil didn’t allow it. Congressman James S. Gorman raised the specter of the name “Swampoodle”: did the term “. . . have reference to the character of the soil or the character of the people”? Baldwin declined to characterize the people.

The committee report noted:

“The testimony is very conflicting, but there can be no question that a careful examination of the proofs will show the fact that the west half of block 678 was originally and many years ago a firm soil except in the bed of Tiber Creek which at that place was quite an insignificant stream, except when swollen by heavy rains. …Tiber Creek . . . [whose] banks were sloping and firm and its bottom seemed to be composed of sand and gravel. . . .” [4]

Ultimately the GPO was expanded on its current site and square 678 remained unbuilt.

Washington Irishness

Whatever the topographic conditions, the Irish character of the neighborhood was undisputed. The Irish long had presence in Washington. In 1816, David Baille Warden wrote that “nearly one half of the population of Washington is of Irish origin. The laboring class is chiefly Irish.” [5]

Warden had been born in County Down and emigrated to the United States in 1799, becoming a citizen in 1804. Skilled and unskilled Irish workers had come to work on a variety of construction projects in the new federal city. And they invested in it too . . . purchasing lots in the first public sale in 1791. In 1850 nearly half of the foreign-born population was Irish. [6]

Scattered across the city were other neighborhoods with significant Irish populations, including Foggy Bottom (and nearby “Chronic Row” and “Paddy Mageetown”), but Swampoodle was the archetypical rough Irish slum. Irish identity in America, and Washington, was, and is, a contested, nuanced thing, wrapped up in questions of religious affiliation and ethnicity. The vast majority of early Irish immigrants to the colonies and then the United States were Presbyterians from Ulster. Catholics had a significant presence in Washington. The gulf between Catholic and Protestant, serious in Ireland, widened over time in the United States. Presbyterians were like vinegar dropped into water, Catholics like oil; Presbyterians diffused in to the larger Protestant American community, Catholics adhered together, separate, clannish, and distinct. Protestant Irish became Americans; Catholic Irish became Irish-Americans. The Protestant Irish rarely get mentioned — by some not even considered “real” Irish. Often this distinction is made by Catholic historians, but sometimes by Protestants themselves, wanting to separate from the rowdy, disreputable reputation of the “Irish.” A new term was invented — “Scotch-Irish” or “Scots-Irish” — which had the benefit of the Scots’ reputation for thriftiness and piety. This does not mean Protestant Irish were not present. Senator Thomas Hart Benton in 1841 said he grew up in a Scotch-Irish neighborhood (albeit in North Carolina). [7] In 1854 the Washington mayoral election was tightly contested; anti-Catholicism and rights of immigrants collided. Native anti-Catholics voted for election loser John Maury, while the immigrant anti-Catholic vote went to winner John Towers — including the vote of Irish Protestants. [8]

Popular Portrayal

Within a few years Swampoodle became nationally known. Newspapers across the nation would routinely report on crimes in Swampoodle, tsk-tsking at the inappropriateness of such doings in the Nation’s Capital. The Madison Daily Wisconsin Patriot on June 18, 1858 headlined one such report of a shooting “What is done in the Capital City of the United States.”

Madison Daily Wisconsin Patriot, June 18, 1858. image--Library of Congress.

Madison Daily Wisconsin Patriot, June 18, 1858. image–Library of Congress.

Irish inhabitants of Swampoodle were consistently portrayed as a rough bunch. Newspaper crime reports lent credence to this depiction. In 1864, theaters chimed in with plays such as “Bushwackers of the Potomac!” which included the character of Tim Fagan, “the Swampoodle Game Cock” (played by W.B Cavanaugh) –- performed, as reported in the July 9, 1864 issue of the Evening Star, at the Canterbury as “the great sensation drama.”

July 9, 1864 Evening Star announcement for the performances of “Bushwackers of the Potomac!” at the Canterbury. image--Library of Congress.

July 9, 1864 Evening Star announcement for the performances of “Bushwackers of the Potomac!” at the Canterbury. image–Library of Congress.

Swampoodle was not Washington’s only dangerous neighborhood — Pipetown, Murder Bay, and others all appeared prominently in the newspaper crime reports. It has been suggested that Swampoodle’s violent reputation has been overblown but there seems little reason to suppose such, as stereotypes are rooted in truth and crime is always newsworthy. Irish tempers, isolation, poverty, and alcohol are quite the combustible mix.

As reported in the August 4, 1856 issue of the American Organ newspaper. image--Library of Congress.

As reported in the August 4, 1856 issue of the American Organ newspaper. image–Library of Congress.

­“Thornton’s American Glossary” in the July-December, 1938 edition of   Dialect Notes “Swampoodle” was defined as “a name sometimes applied to the low-lying and poor section of a town or city.” In a brilliantly evocative paper, Joseph Kelly described his childhood in 1850s and 1860s Washington. One passage mentioned Swampoodle:

“When we lived on 4th Street, opposite Judiciary Square, every evening we watched the cows passing along the street and over the common at the side of our house, to their home in Swampoodle for their milking, so that in uncovered tin pails and ladled out with a long dipper, their more or less bacteria-infested milk might be peddled from door to door.” [9]

Swampoodle did grow into the city and the city grew up to it. It could hardly be distinguished from the adjacent urban fabric on the 1884 Adolph Sachse map of Washington. Square 678, soon to be considered for GPO expansion, was a vacant space just south of the original Swampoodle.

Detail from "The national capital, Washington, D.C. Sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883-1884." image--Library of Congress, Geography and Map Div. Note building marked "57" at center is the GPO.

Detail from “The national capital, Washington, D.C. Sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883-1884.” image–Library of Congress, Geography and Map Div. Note building marked “57” at center is the GPO.

Denouement

The name Swampoodle survived in popular use for something less than a century. The isolated core cluster of dwellings on Jackson Alley was enveloped in the urban fabric of the city. In 1857 Cornelius Wendell built a bindery and the building which was purchased in 1861 for the Government Printing Office (GPO). (“Swampoodle” became shorthand for the GPO, much as “Foggy Bottom” has (been) for the State Department.) It would grow and grow and grow. Dense row housing was built for GPO workers next door. The Jesuits erected St. Aloysius Church a block north of the GPO in 1859. The Convent Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur was built at the corner of North Capitol and K Streets, NE. Sibley Hospital began as part of Lucy Webb Hayes National Training School for Deaconesses and Missionaries across the street on North Capitol above K Street. To the south, between F and G Streets, NE (the western half of square 678) was developed into the Swampoodle Grounds field, briefly used by the Washington Statesmen baseball team.

The landscape was being transformed. The defining feature, Tiber Creek, <http://imaginaryterrain.com/portfolio/dc-streams> was buried into sewer pipes. But it was the creation of Union Station which obliterated much of Swampoodle. Up to that point Capitol Hill dropped away along Delaware Avenue and D and E Streets, NE. Millions of tons of landfill was needed to extend Capitol Hill and bring the land up to the required grade.

Section of a 1903 panoramic view of the construction site and equipment during the building of Union Station. Near the center of the image the tower of the B&O rail station is visible. Furthest right the existing street level can be seen below the raised railroad tracks and the depth of fill seen in comparison with the crowd of bystanders. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div..

Section of a 1903 panoramic view of the construction site and equipment during the building of Union Station. Near the center of the image the tower of the B&O rail station is visible. Furthest right the existing street level can be seen below the raised railroad tracks and the depth of fill seen in comparison with the crowd of bystanders. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div..

Succeeding generations of Irish-Americans dispersed into other Irish neighborhoods around the expanding city. The name faded from common use by the 1920s (the Post featured a “Story of The Passing of Historic Swampoodle” in 1922) and joined those other antiquarian curiosities of English Hill, Pipetown, Murder Bay, and more.

Footnotes

[1] Busey, pg. 217.

[2] Busey, pg. 220.

[3] Busey, pg. 222.

[4] Site for Government Printing Office. Testimony Taken Before the Senate Committee on PrintIng, Respecting the Character of Block 678, The Site Proposed by The Commission Appointed to Select a Site for The New Government Printing Office, as to Its Suitability for So Large a Building. (pg. 98).

[5] David Baile Warden, Chorographical and statistical description of the District of Columbia  (1816, pg. 27).

[6] Margaret McAleer, “’The Green Streets of Washington: the experience of Irish mechanics in ante-bellum Washington” in Urban Odyssey: a multicultural history of Washington, D.C. (1996, pg. 53).

[7] Washington Globe, August 27, 1841.

[8] Evening Star, June 6, 1854. [Note: this is only mention I have been able to find of Washington’s “Irish Protestants” in Washington, DC newspapers.]

[9] Dialect Notes, pg. 125.

[10] Joseph T. Kelly, “Memories of a Lifetime in Washington,.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. (1930, vol. 31/32, pp. 117-149.

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

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Kristi Finefield of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; to Brian Kraft and Kathleen Lane; and to William John Shepherd, Shane MacDonald, Ian Fowler, and William Wright.

References & Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore, who is of Irish ancestry and hails from both County Down and County Westmeath, 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.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.