Rock Creek Section
Early History of Populous District of Washington
Drinking Water Scarce
Prolific Spring at the Foot of a Gum Tree
Some Old-Time Residences
Grades of Squares and Streets - Cuts
and Fills and Improvements - Slow Progress Made

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, April 1, 1906 [pt. 2, p. 1]

In the days when that portion of Washington about the western terminus of Pennsylvania avenue at Rock creek had been thrown open for settlement the few who had made their homes there were not all supplied with desirable drinking water. There was an abundant supply in the creek for washing purposes, and some of the springs furnished drinking water, but the best water for drinking purposes relied on by many of the west side of the creek and the limited number of settlers on the Washington side was obtained from a spring which issued from the foot of a gum tree on the east bank of the creek. This spring was not far below the aqueduct by which the Potomac water is carried across and on which thousands pass daily between the two cities.

Though no one is now living who knew this spring a hundred or more years ago, perhaps a few may be found who drank of the water from that source. It was for a long time peddled about the eastern portion of Georgetown at 2 cents per bucket.

A little stream in Georgetown flowing into Rock creek at its confluence formed a basin about where the canal afterward had its outlet. The lower portion of this creek was well supplied with fish, and the catches of herring further up the stream gave the name of "Herring Hill" to a part of Georgetown. There were two bridges over the creek, known as the upper and the lower bridges, at M and K streets, respectively, and it was over the former that the Georgetown water c art made its trip to the spring.

In the early days of the last century Water street was a busy thoroughfare, with its stores, warehouses and wharves, and it shipping from domestic and foreign ports. The course of the Washington trade was across the lower bridge and by K street to Pennsylvania avenue, which, as may be conjectured, was a simple dirt road. Indeed, entering the city from that direction at any period before the war would not impress one that much had been done toward making a town, so sparsely settled was the site of the capital, but a few of the public buildings making any show.

Early Improvements
As early as 1808 the corporation had done some work in that section, K street having been opened to 23d street, the avenue to Rock creek, and G street to Lear's wharf, but the sums appropriated - often less than a hundred dollars in each case - would indicate that little else was done than to keep the roadways in passable condition.

Then there was observable much of the primeval forest, and it may be said that much of the Peters tract included in the plat of the city was in the state of nature. That portion north of M street along the banks of the creek was well wooded before the soil had been cultivated, tobacco and other crops being the products. Mr. Peters' residence, which is still standing - No. 2620 on the south side of K street between 26th and 27th streets - was perhaps the most pretentious in the neighborhood, and it was here that Washington had often stopped. He doubtless had a liking for that section, as included in his property was square 21, between D, E, 25th and 26th streets, purchased in 1794 for a residence. There were in 1807 possibly eight or ten buildings within four squares north of K street and west of 25th street. Numbers of the lots had been purchased. Commissioner Thomas Johnson, Benjamin Stoddert, P. Barton Key and Gen. John Davidson having invested. Then the assessment was on a basis of from three to ten cents per square foot.

In the square 1, fronting on K street between 27th and 28th streets there were improvements of $1,000, assessed to J.C. King and S.D. Hussar. On K street eastward was the house of Mr. Peters, then assessed for $8,000, and the ground was valued much higher than on Pennsylvania avenue. In the twenties Capt. John Peabody, one of the sea captains sailing from Georgetown, and the father of Mr. John J. Peabody [R72 S151], the veteran fire chief, resided there. Mr. John Suter also lived on this square. Near the foot of K street Mr. J.A. Stephens had a wharf on the creek.

Among other early settlers of this section were James Birth, stonecutter; Levi Washburn, grocer; George Macdaniel, a government clerk; Richard Elliott, quarryman; Wm. Knowles, prominent in Masonic circles, and Richard Eno. There was some little business by small craft in the creek before the Chesapeake and Ohio canal was constructed.

The Street Grades
With few exceptions the grades of the avenue and streets corresponded with that of the squares as placed by nature. Although in the appropriation bills the word open was used with that of repair, it was a few decades before the word grade was employed.

A considerable elevation in the neighborhood of L and 26th streets made it necessary for cuts in M and 26th streets, in the twenties the bridge at M street being reached by the avenue travel through 26th street. This was the one artery between Washington and Georgetown for over fifty years, the upper route. But in the fifties, when the water from the Potomac was introduced, the mains formed a portion of the bridge at Pennsylvania avenue which is used today by vehicles and pedestrians. The street cars used the old elbow route.

Though that portion of the city built up slowly, it seems to have been attractive e for some leading men, and a few palatial houses, for those days, were erected. One of the best known was the residence of Tench Ringgold [R45 S 55], the marshal of the District. It was erected on the site where the Columbia Lying-In Hospital now stands. The Ringgold residence was built in 1812 and was known by his name until early in the fifties, when the property became the Maynard mansion, named for its purchaser, Dr. Maynard, a prominent local dentist. The grade having been lowered several feet, Dr. Maynard was obliged to change its original condition - in fact, to reconstruct it. Before the dwelling came into the hands of Dr. Maynard it had been occupied by some of the foreign ministers - British consul general in the twenties, and afterward by the minister from Italy, but Sir Fred Bruce of Great Britain and others. In 1872 the old property was purchased by the Columbia Asylum authorities, and it has been since in their possession.

On the northeast part of this square, now occupied by the weather bureau, was a structure once the scene of much fashionable life. It was also used by foreign legations, Count Pens of France once having his home here. This was a fine three-story brick building, facing north, with ample porches, and with carriageways to the doors. It is best remembered by the older citizens as Col. James Thompson's home. He was one of the leading citizens and resided there for a long term of years, but the house is said to have been built before his day. He was long the chief clerk of a treasury bureau, and was prominent in Masonic circles. During the occupancy of Col. Thompson the residence, or a portion of it was said to be haunted. Later Admiral John E. Reeside, the veteran mail contractor and stage line operator, lived there.

Some of the Residents
In the twenties William Hayman, a prominent brewer; Fleider B. Poston, a city constable for forty years, and Barney Kelly settled on K street. The latter was probably the first to establish a business here of bottling ale and porter when "'arf and 'arf" was the popular drink. He was the father of Capt. John F. Kelly of the police force. In this neighborhood James Coleman had his tannery and carried on his business of Morocco dresser.

Later the cloth and carpet weaver Didenhover moved his looms from Vermont avenue and L street and established quite a business on K street near 27th street. The first settler in the square between K, L, 25th and 26th streets was Cobert Scott early in the century. Subsequently Mr. Stuger, long a draftsman of the general land office, lived here shortly after 1820. Samuel Smoot purchased lot 2, fronting on K street near 27th, and establishing lime kiln s near the creek, the stone for which was brought down by the canal. The residence was long the office of Dr. Smoot, a leading physician of his day.

The Davidson brewery, on the northeast corner of K and 27th streets, was bought by William Hayman for $12,000 and carried on by him for ten years or more. In 1844 it was bought by Jacob Harmon and the firm of Harmon, Gordon & Co. continued the business for many years. That the K street section was the most populous in the first twenty years of the city's history is evident.

Before the war of 1812 William Lowry had a store at the intersection of Pennsylvania avenue and L street, west of 26th street, and this in the thirties was known as Suter's store. It was a veritable Noah's ark, containing a complete assortment of e very class of goods. It was said, in fact, that the proprietor never missed a sale of the article asked for.

Francis Dodge in early years was interested in the square west of 26th street and north of Pennsylvania avenue, and in 1816 John Giasco settled on the square, as did also S. Lancaster a few years later. Two of the original brick houses and several frame structures yet stand on 26th street, and these constitute what was once known as "Bride's Row," most likely with no reference to Cupid, but so designated from the name of John McBride, who kept a tavern there sixty years ago. In the twenties John Bradfield's tavern was on M street and Edward Burke, an upholsterer, was settled near there.

Square Above Grade
Square 14 between Pennsylvania avenue and L street, east of 26th street, long remained in the Peters family, but passed about 1834 to others. The late David Serrin was probably the first occupant, dating back 1842. Dr. C.H. VanPatten, a chemist; Mr. Stuger, noted above, and S.D. Castleman, engaged in the wood, coal and lime business, were owners and residents later. This square is much above grade. The center is said to have been the apex of a hill which by a grade of 45 degrees reached this creek. Much of this property is included in the Horace S. Johnston estate.

There was before the civil war but a slow growth of that extreme end of the town. Streets were opened for travel only when the demand was most pressing, and much continued as "commons." In the late thirties and early forties circuses occasionally pitched their tents on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue beyond 25th street. There was little accommodations for the churchgoing people in that section, Union Chapel, St. John's and St. Matthew's being the nearest Washington churches. Now at 25th street on the avenue St. Stephen's Catholic Church has a large congregation, and Episcopal and other churches are not far away.