By James Croggon, The Evening Star, March 3, 1907 [p. 12]
In the early days of the capital city much of that section of land designated as square 503, south, was known as "Greenleaf's Point," from the fact that James Greenleaf was one of the largest owners of realty in the vicinity. This is within the lines of N and O, 4-1/2 and 6th streets southwest, though for nearly fifty years the south and west lines could be defined only on paper, because O street was not cut through, nor was 6th street, which with the river bank, was its west line.
When Mr. Greenleaf acquired title in 1794 he changed the plans so that the seven blocks contained forty-seven lots. Morris & Nicholson, Thomas Law and Capt. Duncanson were associated with the titles in 1795, in which year George Baker bought four lots with a covenant to Mr. Greenleaf to build thereon. About the same time Patrick Marr bought lot 30 on Union street and in 1796 John Bickley bought lot 12 at the corner of 6th and O streets, and lot 28 on Union street, with the privilege of wharfing. John Ashley bought fifteen brick houses erected in the square and Capt. Duncanson mortgaged lot 35 on N street for improving. In 1797 R. Gridley purchased the right of wharfage attached to lot 16, corner of 6th and N streets; E. Burrow bought lot 13, 6th and O streets, on the river front, and 26 on Union street, and John Bickley lot 20 on M street. In 1806 lot 12, with two frame houses fronting on the river, was sold to Philip Tuell. Joshua Ward bought lot 27 on Union street, and John Sinclair lots 20 and 21 on N street, southwest corner of Union street. Sinclair was a blacksmith and he maintained a shop on his property for many years.
In 1806 the ground assessment in the square was 3 cents per foot and on buildings as follows: L. Morin, $120; I. and J.P. Pleasants, $1,000; S. Elliot, jr., $800 and $1,200; Pratt, Francis et al., $12,000; J. Becken, $350; W. Cranch, $1,800, on N and 4-1/2 streets; P. Haley, $70; Ann Bichley, $200; S. Baker, $800; F. Burrows, $500; D. Caffery, $40, and P. Marr, $250, on Union street. The property assessed to Pratt, Francis & Co. consisted of 4-1/2 street buildings known as Wheat&s row, which are yet standing, and some of the houses on N street.
Some Early Owners
In 1811, P. Marr bought lot 27 on Union street, with a two-story brick house thereon. The following year James Ross bought lot 30, with house on the same street, and three years later Mr. Tuell was the owner. In 1817 Benjamin Sprigg was the owner of lot 37, next east of Judge Cranch&s old home, which Gen. Walter Jones afterward purchased, and Edward S. Lewis bought lots 40 to 42, which included the corner of M and 4-1/2 streets. In the same year Overton Carr conveyed to Samuel Elliot, jr., thirty-nine lots in the square. Mr. Dougherty in this year purchased lots 33 to 35, which included the Duncanson house, and in 1819 he bought lot 32 and part of 31 on Union street. In 1818 Mary Sencham and W. Wise purchased lots 20 and 21 on N and Union streets and Henry King, lots 13 to 15 on 6th street and 22 and 23 on Union street, with water privileges attached to the 6th street lots. Mr. John Wheat in this year became the owner of the north house of the row erected by Greenleaf about 1794, and the row soon became known by his name. Thomas Coote in 1819 bought lot 16 on 6th street; A. Fagan, lot 39 on N street; J.H. Blake, lots 8 and 10 on O street; I. Little, lot 27, and H. King, south part 31 on Union street. In 1820 Sam Black owned lot 16 on 6th street and W.D. Maddox lots 20 and 23 on N street and Union street, respectively. In 1822 Gen. Philip Stewart bought Wheat's row and south lots 45 to 49 on 4-1/2 street.
Valuations in the Twenties
The next year John F. Webb was the owner of lots 32 to 35 on N street, and a few years later lots 34 and 35 went to Dr. N.P. Causin, afterward judge of the Orphans' Court, and in 1832 they passed to Richmond Johnson. In 1822 Zachariah Hazle had a life interest in lot 12, facing the river. Lots 32 to 35 again changed hands, and in 1828 Mrs. Ann Stewart held the titles. In 1832, lot 32 and part of 31, on Union street, were owned by Mrs. Inez B. Palmer. John Wheat, owner of lot 44, purchased the remaining lots, 45 to 49, thus acquiring full title to the row of houses which bore his name. The Bank of Washington in 1835, owned about a dozen lots, two on O street, two at 6th and O street, and four at 6th and N streets.
In the thirties there was a valuation of 2 to 4 cents per foot on the ground. The improvements were listed to A. Bartle, $500 and $600, lots 14 and 15; S. Black, $600, on lot 16; W.A. Maddox, $700, lot 21, corner N and Union streets; Mrs. Marr, $100, lot 29; J.F. Webb, $100, lot 31, on Union street; Sarah Tuell, $500, lot 34, and $800, lot 35; W.H. Terrett, $600, lot 37; E.S. Lewis, $900, lot 40, on N street; John Wheat, $800, lot 43; P.G. Washington, $1,000, to lot 44; P. Stewart, $700, lot 45 and John Wheat, $1,000 lot 46, on 4-1/2 street.
The old commodious brick dwellings are thus seen to have been valued at what appears an insignificant figure, but this may be explainable by the fact that tenants were hard to find. They were all well-built structures, but for ordinary families the rooms were too large, requiring much carpet for the floors, and much fuel for heating purposes. Consequently, when once vacant few tenants could be found who would rent at a rate based on the original cost. One hundred dollars per annum was the usual rent for these houses half a century ago and, though of but nine or ten rooms each, the tenants enjoyed three times the space that sum would have produced elsewhere. In the fifties one of the N street houses had been so long vacant that it had a reputation of being peopled by ghosts, and the term "Castle Thunder" was attached to it.
The Original Wheat’s Row
Mr. Black conducted the place in the twenties, and it soon became resort for rivermen, and for employees of the arsenal and the ordnance men. It was a prosperous place for many years.
One of the institutions of the neighborhood was Sam Black's tavern, a frame house of a story and a half, on the west side of Union street. It was built about 1800, at which time it was offered to let "as most conveniently adapted for the business near the wharf of Morris & Nicholson."
In the twenties and for many years afterward the Wheat family lived in the neighborhood. Richmond Johnson, then teller of the Washington Branch United States Bank; Peter G. Washington and Mrs. Mary Elliot were other residents in the row. Thomas A. Mitchell, deputy warden of the penitentiary; Charles K. Preuss, a draughtsman who became associated with Gen. Fremont in exploring expeditions; J.W. Jones, paymaster, and John M. Wilson, master gun carriage maker at the arsenal, were tenants in 1840 or thereabouts. The flower garden, with the greenhouses of the Wheats which adjoined the row on the south, made the place attractive and there was a pump of the finest water, almost of freezing temperature, opposite the row.
On N street the residents included Mrs. N. Alexander, W.H. Terrett, E.S. Lewis, Allen McCrae, L. Radcliffe and James Pumphrey. James Gill conducted a grocery on 6th street. Mr. Lippard, who in the thirties was in the ordnance service at the arsenal, bought the Duncanson house, No. 470 N street, in 1837, and married and settled there. The family, since his death a few years ago, have continued to live there. Maj. J.W. Jones, paymaster at the arsenal, lived in the row in the forties, and he subsequently established a large grocery and variety store at the corner of 4-1/2 and N streets.
Reuben B. Clark afterward became Maj. Jones' partner and the firm launched a veritable "Noah's Ark." The firm later moved to the corner of 4-1/2 and M streets, and their old stand was taken by the firm of Pumphrey & Vermillion. Mr. Prather, who lived west of 4-1/2 street, was engaged in teaming – house moving being a specialty with him. In those days frame houses were often moved to make room for better buildings.
One of the Oldest Inhabitants
In the late forties the shore of the river was quite bare of wharfage opposite this square. The beach of sand had a gentle descent toward the water, and it was a favorite place for bathing. The boys of that day made good use of it despite the frequent attempts by the police to arrest them.
About 1850 John Van Riswick left the employ of the government as a machinist in the arsenal and established himself in business on the river front. A lumber, wood and coal yard and fish wharf were also here, and with a saw and planning mill in operation there was a promising outlook for business.
About this time the first barrel machine was put to commercial use in a mill on the water front.