Eastern Portion of The “Ridge” Years Ago

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 20, 1906 [pt. 2 p. 10]

About seventy-five years ago the eastern portion of “The Ridge” – as F street from 15th street to the Capitol was once known – was fast losing claim to that designation. East of 9th street there were several branches from the direct line of the “Ridge.” That portion west of Sluice run and 9th street has been spoken of in a former article in The Star. Eastward there was quite a rise in the grade, the highest point being at about 8th street.

The reservation on which the Interior Department building is located was neither wild land nor city property, but “ ‘twixt and ‘tween,” for there were two or three families settled upon it, and some of it was under cultivation. Near the northwest corner of 7th and F streets was the little frame school house of James Caden, who when the land was taken for the patent office site removed to near the southwest corner of those streets. Near where are now the south portico steps a family named Golden lived in a small frame house. A family by the name of Orr long occupied a cabin near about the center of the reservation. Surrounding this family’s cabin was an orchard and garden, which with the aid of a cow and chickens made the family a living. The boys of that period caused Mr. Orr much trouble by raiding his orchard and tearing down his fences. His chief difficulty, however, was as to the land.

Gen. Van Ness, who married Marcia Burns, asserted ownership and assumed to sell that portion which took in the orchard and other cultivated ground. Being dispossessed, Orr was driven to despair, and in a little time, it is said, he became a mental wreck and died. Mrs. Orr continued to live in the cabin, but she also became so helpless that a kind neighbor spent much of her time ministering to her wants. She remained on the ground until the erection of the patent office building had been commenced in 1836 and her cabin being in the way of the work, the workmen volunteered to build another for her nearby. It is stated that when President Jackson first heard of Mrs. Orr’s refusal to vacate he directed her ejectment, but that being more fully informed of the situation he directed that she should be allowed to end her days on the ground.

There had been but little improvement made by the city around the reservation other than making the streets passable for vehicles and pedestrians, the ordinary brick pavement which was laid at the cost of the property holder being in front of the best improved squares.

On the south side of F street and east side of 7th such improvements could be seen, but the general government had not done its part of the paving, and the city but little more than to construct the gutters. Nor can it be said that the citizens had done much more than erect houses for homes and not for show, and many of the structures were of the plainest style of frame building, with now and then a modest brick in view. Indeed, the story-and-a-half hip roof was much in evidence, while the salt boxes set well back from the building line indicated their owners’ intention to add a front building.

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Prior to the utilization of the square for government purposes there lived on G street James Clephane, who owned two frame houses near 8th street; two Hoover families, John Bailey, James Kennedy and Mrs. Donoho, who kept a grocery. On 8th above G street were Benj. Oliver, Samuel Dove, Robert Allen, G. Barnhill, J. C. White and David Shoemaker. On the east side of 7th street between F and G streets were Collins’ Tavern, the residence of Christian Klopfer – the large frame recently torn down; Jonathan Phillips’ grocery, L. S. Beck, constable, and David Westerfield, cabinetmaker. On the south side of F street between 7th and 9th streets were George Hadfield, architect; William King, cabinetmaker; the Von Schmitts, patent agents and machinists; Mrs. Sarah Day, Mrs. Ormes, Miss Peckham’s school and a family by the name of Leland. The latter were well known because of the striking likeness of two twin boys, who were continuously tricking their friends. As near alike as “peas in a pod” in features, height, weight, voice and tastes, it is said the twins played jokes even on their parents. South on 8th street were Mrs. Ann Blanchard and W. Blair.

The general and city post offices and patent office were then occupying the Great Hotel building, which was destroyed by fire in 1835. North on 7th street was a small frame building in which a fire engine was kept on the ground floor, and in the hall above was the armory of the Washington Guards. At the southwest corner of 7th and E streets was the frame tavern long known as Hendley’s, and afterward as Gibson’s. This section was one of the then few important centers of the city, for most mail matter was called for at the post office. It is true there was a letter carrier, Mr. John Bailey, who, essaying to cover the town, had a conveyance, but for the delivery of mail he was entitled to a fee, and many, to save the expense, would call in person at the office.

About the center of the post office square on 7th street was a row of three-story brick buildings erected some years before by Cornelius McLean. In the twenties Joseph Anderson, first controller of the treasury: John F. Webb and Mrs. Eliza Thomas were the tenants. Subsequently Col. William Benning, Mrs. Ironsides and others lived in the row. In the forties, when the department had been established on the old site, the south house of this row became the city post office, and in the second story was the office of the first line of telegraph used.

The houses on the east side of 7th street south of F street were few and far between, and nearly all of frame. Rockendorf, a confectioner, was at the corner of E street, and C. H. Wharton, a magistrate; Nathan Smith and Edward DeKroft, a printer, were also located there.

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There were a number of vacant lots along F street from 7th to 5th streets. Between 6th and 7th there were a number of residences, and it was here ten or twenty years afterward lived such people as Secretaries Seward and Wells and Senator Bright, while the patent office was represented by the commissioner, Edmund Burke, and Chief Clerk H. H. Sylvester, grandfather of Maj. Sylvester, present chief of police. Among those on the line to 5th street were Mrs. Welch, Robert Trumbull, George Sterling, Edward Murphy, A Rodbird, R. Burch, M. Cavanaugh, L. A. Poole, J. A. Burch, J. Getchel, Judah Delano, Patrick Crowley, John H. Wade and Michael Larner, printers, and Bernard Caulfield and J. B. Martin, department clerks. On 6th street, south of F street, in a row of frames, were Mason Piggott, a well-known policeman, and M. Tarleton.

Among the improvements made a few years later was a row of brick buildings on the east side of 6th street, erected for John Boyle, chief clerk of the Navy Department. At the 5th street corner was the grocery of John Brooks, and the house of Dollie Johnson, nearby on the north side of F street, and on the south side was the recently erected chapel of Wesley M. E. congregation. Though the neighborhood was as orderly as any in the city, it cannot be said that there was an absence of influences not friendly to morals and religion.

There were a few houses immediately south of the square, and on the 5th street side at E street was the shoe shop of Zebedee Flynn, in front of whose door was a pump, and the boys were wont to torment him by singing
     “Old Zebedee Flynn, old Zebedee Flynn,
     He walks up the street with his toes turned in,”
in allusion to his club feet.

South of E street were Andre Giovanni, a sculptor; Charles W. Botelor and John D. Botelor, and near the corner of D street a row of small frame buildings. To the south the Wallach house had been built a short time before, and at the corner of 4 ½ street -- now John Marshall place – was the Masonic Hall, which is yet standing. This contained besides a lodge room a hall for entertainments, and at the time mentioned a museum was conducted there.

What is now Judiciary Square – with the pension office on the northern portion and the city hall on the south – then presented anything but a lovely appearance and was known as the city hall lot. That building was quite new, and the front view was an imposing one. The full plan had not been carried out: the back walls, being of brick and perfectly blank, were not pleasant to look at. On the north side of E street, midway between 4th and 5th streets, was the jail, erected about 1804. This was a plain two-story structure, in which the jailer lived. At that time, imprisonment for debt being in vogue, he often had some of the best citizens whose only offense was inability to pay.

There is told a story of one of the debtors getting a wife and position through his imprisonment. The debtors were allowed outside during the day if they kept within the prison bounds, which were 1st, 15th and G streets and the canal. It so happened that one of the debtors and the young daughter of the prison keeper were mutually smitten, and one day they met outside and came to an understanding. She was then on her way to the “Marsh Market” for the family supplies, and while he went for a license to marry she hastily did her marketing. Meeting near a minister’s residence the couple were married. As in duty bound, the debtor reported at sundown and he was introduced by the daughter as her husband.

Of course the father made the best of it and bestowed his blessing, and being loath to see his son-in-law a prisoner, went security for his indebtedness and gave him an opportunity to square himself by securing him an appointment as constable. It is said that he proved to be a capable officer in all the particulars save that he would never arrest one for debt, as he knew how it was from experience.

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With the exception of some of the ground west of the city hall and about the jail, the land was comparatively level as far as G street. Through the northern portion a stream fed by springs near 6th and L and 8th and L streets entered the square near 5th and G streets and passed out near E and 4th streets, flowing southeastwardly to the Tiber near C street. It was in this stream that Mr. Baalem Burch lost his life in 1852.

Mr. Burch was a well-known carpenter and builder, residing on 14th street south of G street, and having spent the evening with his brother, Capt. Samuel Burch, near New Jersey avenue and I street, started for his home. It was just after a storm, the run was a raging torrent and the night very dark. Some days afterward the body of Mr. Burch was found near Indiana avenue and 3rd street, and the belief was that he slipped from the log which was laid over the stream at 5th and G streets.

Few houses were to be seen to the north and east, that of Capt. Burch, at New Jersey avenue and I street; the home of Nathan Cook and Henry Dawson, Mark Ferris, William Woodson, in the neighborhood of 3d and F streets, and James Eslin, near 2d and G streets, and the grocery of Mrs. Lawton, at New Jersey avenue and F street, being about all. These were the nucleus of what became English Hill, on which were the brickyards of Eslin, Wilson, Diggs and others.

Near where Trinity Episcopal Church is located, Indiana avenue and 2d street, there was a settlement called Irish Hill, south of which there had been some brick kilns, and about 2d and B streets were some fine two-story buildings, which at one time housed some of Washington’s most prominent people.

The Tiber, which crossed the avenue at 2d street, was forded near Indiana avenue, and it was not bridged permanently till 1848. Between this stream and the Capitol there were no houses save a few on Pennsylvania avenue.