West Washington in Early Days

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 13, 1906 [pt. 2, p. 10]

Before 1800 that portion of Washington in the neighborhood of Pennsylvania avenue and 20th street was the scene of some building operations. The fact that the ground valuation north of the avenue was twenty-five cents a foot, and there had been erected by 1802 buildings on all on all the lots fronting I street between 20th and 21st streets save one shows that the property owners were enterprising. Above this point but six buildings had been erected, and on the square eastward were seven buildings on the avenue, and some improvements had been made on I street. The locality assumed additional importance when the West Market was established at the northwest corner of the triangle made by the lines of the avenue, 20th and I streets, in 1803, and the apparatus of the old Union Fire Company was located the following year. In fact it may be said that at the period when the Irish poet bestowed the title of "city of magnificent distances" on Washington in the early part of the last century this section possessed some of the characteristics of a small town. There was the well-known O’Neal tavern, a wood yard, several groceries, blacksmith and wheelwright shops and shoe shops within a few hundred yards of 20th and I streets where was located in 1803 the West Market, with its town hall for meeting purposes.

The establishment of public markets was among the powers granted the corporation by the act of May 3, 1802. Under this the old Center of "Marsh" market was erected in the latter part of the year under the act of the councils of October 6. This later act provided that whenever a majority of residents west of the President’s house petitioned for a market the mayor should establish one as soon thereafter as a convenient market house was erected by them. That the residents soon thereafter had a market of their own is shown by the scales, weights and measures being provided for in March, 1803, with the appointment of a supervisor for the market days set on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and subsequently Saturday evenings, for nearly fifty years. This structure was originally about twenty by forty feet, the lower portion of brick piers and the upper part was a hall for general purposes. With the increase of population more facilities for trade were provided, an extension was built on the rear, and afterward the full length of the building was inclosed by a high fence to the north building line of Pennsylvania avenue. Mr. Philip Williams was the first market master, and this position he retained till 1835. He was also engaged in the grocery business at his residence on the south side on I street between 20th and 21st streets. He was succeeded by Mr. William Sirren, who lived south of the avenue on P street, and he served until the building was destroyed by fire.

There were among the butchers in the early part of the country some who lived in Funkstown, as Hamburg, the settlement southward, was known before the city was planned. Among such were M. Eckhart, P. Goodyer, and Fritz Hagar. Other butchers were Elf Palmer, Henry Walker, Wm. Linkins, John Hoover, John Befly, the Weavers and Emersons. Some of the men had their slaughter houses but a few hundred yards away located on Slash run. Most of the fruit and vegetable gardens, the produce from which was sold in the market, were northward usually taking up entire squares of ground. These paid well on the investment.

In the early part of the century so generally did the residents raise their own produce, milk and eggs that few dealers in such were required, but with increasing population the trade increased. Among those who dealt in green stuff were Mrs. Giggs, Mrs. Fullalove, Jack M. Conkey, Mrs. Shorthale, and John Douglass. In the butter and egg trade were R. Cruitt, John Coburn, Thomas Triplet, and J.C. Fearson. Charley Shorter and his wife were prominent here then, the first-named as a general utility man, and the wife of the cook-stand and some today recall that Shorter’s doughnuts have never been excelled.

The apparatus of the old Union Fire Company was housed in the west end until the removal of the company to its new house at 19th and H streets in 1839. The meetings of the company were mostly held here and the fire drills were always west of the building and the triangle once a common was worn smooth by frequent use.

The second story was used as a hall, and it was surmounted by a belfry, in which was a bell. Away back in the thirties some of the boys who annually before St. Patrick’s day put up a "stuffed paddy," made up their minds to get a "paddy" on the top of the belfry. A small boy, who was equal to a monkey in climbing, accomplished the difficult feat and the effigy remained on the belfry till the wind and rain had beaten it to atoms.

The town hall was probably the most popular shall in the District. It was utilized for many purposes. It was a school room, in which many received a t least a part of their education from a Mr. Allison and other teachers; in municipal elections it became a polling booth, after it had served as the meeting place for the nomination of candidates for office ; in the days of Lorenzo Dow it was to some extent his church, for he expounded the gospel here to crowds; it was also used for temperance rallies, particularly during and after the Washingtonian movement; for balls, parties and fairs, in which ladies engaged; for political and club meetings, and in fact whenever it was desired to interest the people of that section, and a hall was needed the old town hall came into play. Notwithstanding its general uses there were organizations, including secret societies, which met there -- Hiram Lodge of Masons, Friendship Lodge of Odd Fellows and Marion Division, Sons of Temperance.

As the hall of the old Union Fire Company whose apparatus was housed on the market floor at the west end it was widely known. Among those who prior to 1820 were often participants in meetings here were the members of the fire company, whose roster bore the names of Thomas Munroe, former Commissioner, then city postmaster; Thomas Carberry, surveyor, and afterward mayor of the city; John N. Moulder, Richard S. Briscoe, Henry M. Steiner, Charles B. Dais, William McPherson, George Macdaniel, John Woodside, Thomas Fillibrown, John D. Barclay, Charles Vinson, James H. Handy, Samuel Potts, Jacob Hines, T.B. Dashell, John Stretch, Joseph Forrest, Daniel Waring, John Potts, W.B. Beall, F.D. Tschiffely, C.A. Davis, Michael Mourse, Samuel Brook, R. Ellis, R. Harrison, W. Williamson, John Burke, John Craven and Joseph Thaw, who were department people; Dr. G. Cozens, Wm. O’Neale, jr., Nathan Moore, Robert Frazier, Fred Phillip, Abram and Matthew Hines, Thomas Herbert, S. Sandiford, Wm. O’Neale, Joseph Brumley, George Walker, John Rawlings, J.M. Maus, Wm. Godfrey, Aaron Nalley, Julius Watkins, W. Worthington, Thomas Sandiford, John Davidson, W. Anderson, jr., James Lowry, Thomas Crown, James Williams, J.B. Timberlake, James Baker, James A. Kennedy, John Kennedy, W. Linkins, James Sandiford, Jesse Baker, J.L. Crosby, Benjamin Strong, W. Worthington, jr., S. Harkness, jr., A.C. Moore, John Thompson, John Williams, L. Brengle, John Barcroft, John Burke, John Rich, J.N. Waters, L. Lepreux; John Palmer, S.R. Waters, W. Ford, W. Burket, John Mattingly, James Hodnett, Thomas Cook and James Watson.

While this portion of the city was gradually building up in population there was also taking root a feeling antagonistic to public markets. By 1850 many of the grocers were dealing in fresh meats, fruits and vegetables, and the term "green grocer" was grafted on the language. So convenient had these been found that with many the public market was not needed. Though in the immediate vicinity of the market house there were taverns, grocery stores and shops, the most of the houses were the homes of prominent well-to-do people and to some the market appeared out of place. Such soon after were gratified, for, as previously stated, the building was destroyed by fire on February 1, 1852, and there was some suspicion that it was set on fire.

The ruins for a few days were an unsightly spectacle but after the lines of the triangles had been set, under the authority of Congress, the debris was removed. Efforts were made for the erection of a market by some of the market people and their friends, but these were unsuccessful for several years. When a market house was located in K street between 19th and 20th, which remained till about 1870, when the board of public works improved K street and a new market was established at 21st and K streets.

Certificates for the purchase of the lots on which Gadsby’s or McBlair’s row stands were issued to Jacob Gilchrist and Jacob Welch in 1791. Before 1800 lots 9 and 10 went into the hands of William O’Neale, who had on them a boarding house valued at $3,000, and a small dwelling valued at $200. Joel Brown, a brother of Rev. Obediah, long pastor of the First Baptist Church, purchased the corner house and resided there some years. Lots 1, at the corner of 20th street and the avenue was owned by P. Barton Key, on which was a $200 building. The famous “O’Neale’s tavern” was next adjoining Mr. Key’s property, and it was assessed at $2,500. Westward, Joseph Machlin owned property on which were $1,100 improvements; Dr. John Butler, $500; Timothy Caldwell, $1,200; Benjamin Coombs, $1,000, and Mr. Frisby, $600. The lot of Mr. Gilchrist, near Mr. O’Neale’s dwelling, was vacant.

The requirement of a roadway to the then only public burial ground east of Rock creek in that section, established in 1807, necessitated the opening of 20th and 21st streets by the corporation. It may be said that this opening consisted simply of cutting a wagon road.

By 1820 there had been some changes of the property in this square as to owners and values.

After the war of 1812 the property in the west end of the square was greatly improved by Mr. O’Neale. His frame hotel had become a favorite resort for prominent people of the south, Senator Williams and Representatives Claiborne, Hogg, Marr and Rhea of Tennessee being among his earliest guests, and afterward came Gen. Andrew Jackson, Gen. Eaton and others. Mr. O’Neale was popular not only because of his personality but because of his interesting family.

It was about 1823, that the Franklin House, at the corner of 21st street, passed from Mr. O’Neale into the hands of Mr. John Gadsby, who had been engaged in the business in Alexandria and Baltimore, and for seven years he conducted it. The National Hotel Company; having in 1828 completed the hostelry at 6th street and Pennsylvania avenue, Mr. Gadsby was induced to take its management, and presided there a number of years. The old Franklin House was then converted into spacious dwellings, and has since been known as Gadsby’s or McBlair’s row, and the descents of Mr. Gadsby – the family of the late John H. McBlair still live there. Baron Stackelberg, the Swedish minister, Mrs. Commodore Patterson, R.K. Meade, father of General and of Admiral Meade have also lived in the row.

Mr. O’Neale, on vacating the Franklin House, went back to his original tavern, or hotel, at 2003, which he conducted to the day of his death in 1837. His widow, Mrs. Rhoda O’Neale, continued the business until she died in 1860 at the age of ninety years.

There were living on this square, in the twenties Sir Stratford Channing, the British minister, and afterward Sir Charles Vaughn, who succeeded him, their residence being the house later occupied by Frank Marcoe of the State Department, which included No. 2020, owned by Owen O’Hare for fifty years or more. Robert J. Walker, Senator and Secretary of the Treasury; Gen. Eaton, Secretary of War; Rev. Dr. Smith Pyne, rector of St. John’s; Major Graham, Gen. J.G. Totten, Col. J.J. Abert, J.S. Chilton, Commodore Ramsey, Thomas P. Morgan, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, Rev. C.A. Davis, Frank Marcoe and George Rhinehart also lived in this square in the early days. Behind these houses there was quite a descent in the grade, and with the exception of some small habitations northward occupied mostly by colored people and slaughter houses near Slash run, little improvement was seen down to war times. The rear view of the lots fronting I street for a long time showed a dumping ground.

The square south of I street between 20th and 21st streets was valued at 5 cents per foot in the beginning of the century, as compared to 25 cents a foot for land in the square opposite. There was, however, some early settlement in this square. A few of the lots on the I street front had been sold prior to 1800, and there was some improvement. On this front Samuel Wilson was assessed, $500; Thomas Wilson, $100; Samuel Harkness, $400; Joseph Carlow, $450; Philip Williams, $100; Daniel Bussard, $150. About 1820 C. and M. Hines had property at the corner, the well-known grocery kept by them for years, and afterwards conducted by Samuel Blott. Then it was valued at $3,000. John Hines paid $1,800 on property southwest of Hines’ grocery. Mary Thompson, $500; Richard Ardray, $400; John Potts, $700; S. Harkness, $650; Jeremiah Hunt, $500; Samuel Johnson, $650. Some of the early residents were Jacob Colclaser, long a blacksmith at 21st and I streets; Jeremiah Hunt, Benedict Random, John Potts, H. Barnes, S. Holmes, W. Langton, Nathan Moore, N. Funk, variety store, and James Wise, wheelwright.