Early Days of the National Capital

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 6, 1906 [pt. 2, p. 1]

When in 1802 the federal city began its corporate existence, under the name of the city of Washington there were some portions which would readily pass as a village. Such could be said with propriety of that portion skirting Pennsylvania avenue above 21st street and east of what is now the circle, for that was the appearance presented by the six buildings on the north side of the avenue, and several quite comfortable dwellings opposite, with here and there scattered about some smaller houses. The western portion of the city was attractive to Washington, when it was known as the Federal City, a title which readily gave way for that of the city of Washington many years before the public dropped the name "Columbia Territory," for that of District of Columbia. Those interested besides the original property holders, Peters, Lingan and others, were Robert Morris, the financier of the revolution, Greenleaf, Duncanson, Deakins and Forrest. It is well known that before President Washington became possessed of property on North Capitol street, on which he was building a residence at the time of his death, he contemplated a winter home in the western part of the city. This was about 1796, and it was the square between D, E, 24th and 25th streets, adjoining the land designated as University Square, and at present the site of the Naval Museum of Hygiene.

That much of natureís handiwork had not been touched by the hand of man at this time need not be said, for so slowly were locations chosen and houses erected that the territory which is now covered with modern buildings then presented a countrified appearance. This was the case within a stoneís throw of the avenue, at this point for several decades. In the vicinity of what is now Washington Circle there were some squares which were unimproved by even a fence down to the twenties. Indeed, if we except the avenue, a few of the streets had been opened to half the prescribed width and many streets had not been opened to the public at all, but were worked by owners of adjacent land as farms and gardens, the farmers paying a dollar a year for the privilege. There were some streets graded gratuitously by brickmakers under authority of the councils.

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In the squares between 22d, 23d, K street, the Circle and I streets, little was done toward making a city for more than twenty-five years. The title passed through a Mr. Pratt and others about 1800 to Samuel Etting, Samuel Blodgett and others, and though no houses were built for some years upon the ground, Mr. Blodgett utilized some of his land by putting it up as security to pay prizes in a lottery. This lottery is supposed to have been held to obtain means to finish the Great Hotel used after 1812 for the Post Office Department. In 1802 James Their had title to the point made by 23d street and New Hampshire avenue on the circle, and in 1815 William OíNeal owned the lot at K street and New Hampshire avenue. That these squares, which were assessed a hundred years ago at less than 5 cents per foot were finally improved needs no telling to those who can see.

South of the circle and the avenues between 22d and 23d streets an assessment of 5 cents was the original valuation of the ground when most of it was in the hands of James Greenleaf, Elliot, Dr. W. Thornton and the Washington Tontine. Early the last century James Duer and Peter Maul were located on the avenue front. About 1820 some of the ground was assessed as high as 16 cents a foot, other lots as low as 5 cents. In this decade Jonathan Jackson, Thomas G. Sprogle, Wm. Doughty, Christian Hines, Capt. John Shaw, U.S.N.; James Birth, John Dewdney and John N. Moulder became property holders. Mr. Moulder was a printer by trade, and for years was a clerk in the treasury, living on I street near 22d. He represented the first ward in the councils. Mr. Samuel Duryea, magistrate, lived as the corner of I and 22d streets, and John Dewdney, who was a county constable and city policeman for years, lived on 22d street between I street and Pennsylvania avenue. While small in build he was known to have all the courage necessary to cope with a giant. Dr. William B. Cozens had a dwelling and office on the avenue near 22d street, and the residence of George Wood of the land office was nearby.

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The most extensive as well as the first improvement in this section was the erection of the six buildings on square 74, north side of Pennsylvania avenue between 21st and 22d streets which land early in the corporate existence of the city bore an assessment of 16 cents per foot. This land was acquired by James Greenleaf in 1794, and two years afterward he conveyed the land on which were the buildings, to Isaac Pollock while the rest of the square was conveyed to W.M. Duncanson and others. The buildings were occupied before the end of 1797 for in a deed of that year Capt. E.O. Williamsí house, at the west and of the row, is spoken of. Before 1800 the houses of R. Dennison, Jonah Thompson, Phillip Fitzhugh and Dr. Dinsmore, as well as one occupied by Mr. Pollock, are mentioned, and shortly afterward David Pollock and James Duelís names are connected with the property. An addition of one house was made to the row about 1800, Wm. Worthington erecting a building at the east end similar to the others, one of which he was the owner. The Worthington family resided here for half century or more. These houses in 1802 were valued at $2,000 each. They were assessed two to Mr. Worthington, two to George Beale Brown, and one each to Brashears & Cook, John Nicholson and Honore Martin. Shortly afterward J.B. Anderson became an owner, and in 1804 and at different times in the early part of the century among the owners were Thomas Munroe, Dr. Wm. Johnston, Col. John Tayloe, L.D. Theaker, Gen. Henry Lee, Wm. Stewart, Richard Veitch, Thomas Swann, H. Moscrop, Julius A. DeSagnal and C.H. Upton. Among the early occupants were Capt. John Woodside, Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. Turner, Drs. Dinsmore and Johnston, the Pollocks, Dr. Thomas Sim, A.H. Derrick of the State Department, Wm. Parker of the War Department and Mrs. Wells. Later came Commander Sawyer, U.S.N.; W.A. Randall of the general land office, Richard Gott, chief clerk of the commissary generalís office, James C. Dunn, printer of the Washington Republican; Rev. Jon Guest, a treasury clerk; James Dixon and Mrs. H.R. Vinson.

It was during the tenancy of Captain John Woodside that there was an exciting fire in the row. Late one night in 1816 the boarding house of Mrs. Thompson took fire in the lower portion and in a few moments the building was a roaring mass of flames. Most of the occupants escaped by the closest margin, some minus other dress than night clothes. One of the guests, however, was cut off from the escape and was seen above the flames in the second story vainly reaching his arm toward a window in the adjoining house begging for some one to assist him. Capt. Woodside, who had proven himself a born fireman at the treasury fire in 1806, was looked to as a leader, and both citizens and firemen followed his direction. A ladder was procured and the manís life was saved and not only that, but all the other houses in the row; the flames being confined to Mrs. Turnerís house.

Squire Waters, besides the house he owned in the row, had other property in the square and built a row of five one-and-a-half stories brick buildings west of his residence. This row of small houses was dubbed the "five kitchens." There also resided on the square prior to 1830 Hugh OíNeal, a baker; Wm. Godfrey, blacksmith; Wm. Watson, a bottler,; Thomas Lundy, carpenter; Edward Dyer, and later there was Bornemanís tavern, Lucheseís grocery and Henry Rochatís woodyard on the square.

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Opposite the six buildings is a square with a history, the title to the land having come from the original proprietors through Morris & Nicholson and Frederick Dickens. One of the buildings upon it -- the first War Department -- was destroyed by fire in 1800. There was on the avenue front at the time several brick buildings, those at the corner of 22d street belonging to Mrs. Mary Lowry and were occupied by her. The house adjoining on the east, the three story brick residence of Joseph Hodgson, was leased to the War Department and near it were the houses belong to Wm. Worthington, Col. Lear and J.N. Maus. In 1820 the ground had reached a valuation of but 9 cents per foot on the avenue, when in addition to property holders named above there were Benjamin L. Lear, Francis D. Lear and George W. Riggs. Ten years later the assessment was 20 cents a foot and for improvements, B.L. Lear, $3,000, Mrs. Lowry, $1,700; Hodgsonís heirs, $1,800; Mr. Worthington, $1,700; Capt. Shaw and Mr. Birth $1,000; John Barcroft & Co. $1,500.

In the forties there had been some improvement in the neighborhood. The carpenter shop of Knoblock & Lewis was on the avenue between 21st and 22nd streets as were also three residences close by; John Mullikinís ice house on K between 21st and 22d streets, the blacksmith shop of Benedict Random at the corner of 21st and I streets; T. Connerís blacksmith shop on the avenue between 21st and 22d streets; J.T. Devaughnís grocery nearby, the residence and office of Samuel Drury, a well-known magistrate; the residence and office of Dr. Wm. B. Magruder, a physician, alderman and several times mayor of the city, was on the avenue west of 21st street. J.N. Ashton, a clerk of the land office, and F. McManus, a baker, also resided on the avenue.

In the square between 21st, 22d, H and I streets, as early as 1820, there were some five houses on ground assessed at 6 cents a foot. Gen. Daniel Parker, on two buildings, paying on $3,100, Brashears & Cook, on two buildings, $7,700 and Mr. Moulder, on one, $1,500.

On the west side of 21st between H and I streets, George Gillis of the treasury lived. George Harness lived on south side of I between 21st and 22d street, as also R. Whitcomb and Mrs. E. Welburn, milliner, resided opposite.

As may be supposed the general and city governments were slow and sparing in ranking appropriations for improvements, the amounts named appearing insignificant at this day. There was, however, a disposition to serve the public, and frequently in projects to improve the authorities were met half way. This was so in the matter of water supply, sinking wells and erecting pumps, the corporation having the work done and the neighborhood paying for it. There was one of these pumps near the corner of 21st street and a reservoir nearby.