Of Little Profit
Section of Washington Long Without Improvement
Much Of It Under Water
Description of Area Known as "Back of Van Ness''."
Land Valued at Low Figures
Title to Many of the Lots Vested in the
United States Government

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, January 2, 1910 [pt. 7, p. 5]

In The Star of December 18 that portion of the city of Washington known for the most of the last century as "Back of Van Ness'" was described as it exists today. And, though over a hundred years have passed since it was laid off in squares of building lots, among the early owners being men who operated largely in the development of the city, the improvements did not go that way, and the land lay idle, excepting that here and there there was a small amount of cultivation in part of the settlement, known as Hamburgh, laid out by Jacob Funk in 1771. This, approximately described, was an area the northeast corner of which was near H and 19th streets and the northwest near 23d and H streets, and running south to the river.

About a dozen streets cut this into squares, in which were an aggregate of nearly 300 lots. Many of these had been sold before the city was projected, and these, as were the lots laid out elsewhere, were taken by the commissioners. The lots were laid out on the city's plan, and title vested in the owners.

South of E street between 18th and 20th streets, the land terminated at the river shore, and on the original plan was the reservation now known as Rawlins' Square, laid out with squares 144 to 148 south, between 18th and 19th streets, the latter square being almost entirely under water. West of this land squares 123 to 129, between 19th and 20th streets, were laid out, the latter having but little ground above water.

No Record of Wharffage
There is no record of the lots on the river ever being used for wharfage purposes, though at Hamburgh there was a wharf and one at the glasshouse. In some old families there is a tradition that hereabouts many wild ducks, patridge and other game was bagged, and it is also said there was good fishing there.

After the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal there was water from the river beneath it to a pond north, and many perch and other small fish were hooked here. It was known for many years as the "Suck hole," and was the resort of boy anglers.

In square 123, between New York avenue, 19th, 20th and E streets, four lots were plotted, and by the division of 1799 the United States retained title to lot 2 and the others were vested in Charles Schell, John Winters and Thomas Crampin for lots in Hamburgh. Two and 3 cents was the early ground value, but there was no movement in property. In 1826 C.E. Eckel bought lot 1, the east end of the square, of Lethe Schell. In 1829 John McCutcheon owned lot 4, at the corner of 20th and E streets. John Miller bought an interest in the same lot. George Scott, in 1830, and B. Waters in 1832 owned parts of same, and lot 2 was donated to St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum by the government. At this time William Scott was listed for $1,200, the value of improvements near 20th and E streets. In 1834 George Hunt and W. Noyes owned an interest in lot 4.

Seven Lots in Square 124
Seven lots fronting New York avenue, 19th, 20th and D streets made square 124. One was retained by the government and the others given for Hamburgh lots in 1799, W. and J. Deakins, B. Stoddert and H. Klinger, with others, taking title some years before. In 1794 Greenleaf had lots 3 and 7, which afterward went to Morris & Nicholson, then to U. Forrest.

In 1812 John Hoye had lot 4, New York avenue and 20th street. In 1817 J.M. Varnum owned lot 6, and afterward S. Matheny acquired half of the same. The next year E. fallon owned the corner at 19th and D streets; soon afterward R. Parrott owned on 19th street; in 1823 Daniel Buzzard owned lots 3 and 7, the first in 1831 going to John C. Rives and the latter to John H. Houston, and in 1832 lot 5 was assigned to St. Vincent's Asylum. In 1830 Thomas Thorpe was assessed for $100 on lot 6, on 19th street. The ground was listed at 1 and 2 cents per foot.

Virginia avenue, 19th and D streets inclosed the one lot of square 125, which was assigned to Stoddert & Deakins for two lots in Hamburgh. James Greenleaf, Morris & Nicholson, and after Uriah Forrest and the Bank of Columbia were interested in the title. In 1805 the Tontine Company was here, but the ground was not improved and there was no change until 1836, when Gen. Weightman had title.

The square south, north 128, Virginia avenue, C and 20th streets, was transferred in 1794 to Stoddert & Deakins for two Hamburgh lots. It did not figure in the real estate transactions until the civil war.

In square 128 there were platted fourteen lots on B, C, 19th and 20th streets, those in the east half being assigned in 1796 to David Burnes and the west half to the United States. In the next year Dunlup & Carlton, who were then among the leading carpenters and builders of the city, bought, with other ground, lots 3 to 8, but there was no improvement of the ground. In 1812 these lots were sold by Washington Boyd, United States marshal, to Elias B. Caldwell. In 1821 Gen. Van Ness owned at the corner of 20th and B streets.

Square 129, south of B street, between 19th and 20th streets, consisted of two lots in 1796. It was divided between the government and David Burnes, the latter taking the east half. As before stated, the water of the river covered most of this ground. The government portion was a water lot, that of Mr. Burnes nearly so, and they were therefore of little utility. As a city square it was long ago dropped from the books.

Was Without Improvements
The reservation in which New York and Virginia avenues cross, between 18th and 19th streets, lay in the open for the fourth of a century until after the civil war, indeed and presented a very different aspect from what it does now. The squares south also appeared to be in the same condition with little exception, the only difference being in the ownership. The general government held title to what is now known as Rawlins square and individuals the numbered squares.

Square 144 was formed of sixteen lots, fronting 18th, 19th, D and E streets, south of the park. Its initial valuation was from one-half to three cents per foot, and the only improvements assessed in the early part of the city's history were for two houses at $150 and $400, respectively, owned by Samuel Miller of the Marine Corps on lot 8, 19th street. David Burnes was vested with title to seven lots, the government to two and one each was transferred to Jacob Zetter, S. Miller and H. Stall in exchange for Hamburgh lots.

In 1802 Isaac Pollock owned two lots on 18th street and Benjamin Stoddert held interest for the Tontine Company. In 1806 R. King owned half of lot 7, on 19th street, and until Dr. Van Patten bought lots 10 to 14 about the northeast quarter, in 1848, no change took place.

In square south 145 there were four lots, each fronting on C and D streets, those in the east half going to the government, the others to David Burns' heirs. The four government lots were included in the purchase of Pratt, Francis, Miller and others the English Building Company but no building operations took place. Nearly fifty years later, in 1847, A.G. Wright bought the west half of the square.

Sold at 1 Cent a Foot
No. 146, of three lots on Virginia avenue, 18th and C streets, was retained by the government and was bought by Pratt, Francis Miller and others, and as little history attached to it as to square 145. In 1848 Col. Thomas Carberry, owning and residing in the square east, bought it for one cent per foot $28.

The square south, formed of four lots, within the lines of Virginia avenue, 18th, 19th and B streets, numbered 147, interested Greenleaf, Morris & Nicholson prior to 1800, as well as the English Building Company; but they left no evidence of enterprise. In 1807 Capt. James Hoban owned lot 2, over 24,000 feet, at the corner of 19th and B streets, and in 1813 Thomas Johnson too a lease of part of lot 1, 22 by 50 feet, on B street, for twenty-one years, at $11 per year.

No. 148, on B street between 18th and 19th streets, was laid off in two lots, mostly in the river, Burnes' heirs taking the eastern, lot 1, and the government the other. In 1817 James Hoban owned here, and in 1837 Mary E. Williams had lot 2.

The section remained a waste for nearly a century, though early the glasshouse on the river west gave employment to a number of people, and Hamburgh wharf was a landing place for vessels. "Back of Van Ness'" was the name of the section described, and "Down by the glass house" that west, in antebellum times.