Old Washington

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 7, 1910 [pt. 43, p. 3]

It was about 1820, when the citizens of Washington began to show interest in upbuilding the city and surrounding the government edifices with a community that would be a credit to the capital of the nation. But at that time it was a mere germ of what it has become, and, indeed, the people of that day would have been pronounced insane had they predicted the present Washington.

May 15, 1820, the charter of the city of Washington replaced former acts. In the lines of the city was a population of 13,000, 10,000 being white, while the District's population, including Alexandria and Georgetown, aggregated 33,000. There had been an attempt to obtain a territorial government with a delegate in Congress, Mr. Kent of the neighboring district of Maryland being an earnest advocate thereof. This led to raising the question of retroceeding that part of the District west of Rock creek to Maryland, and it was much discussed in Georgetown. The proposition for the removal of the capital, which was frequently raised after the war of 1812, was well nigh forgotten; and with the work on the public buildings and at the navy yard and on private property, giving employment to hundreds, and business houses multiplying, Washingtonians were contented and bent their energies to the advancement of the interests of the community. The accommodations for the four departments had been nearly doubled, each having now its own building. Before there were the east and west executive buildings, and when the two companion buildings were added (State, Treasury, War and Navy) they were known as the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest executive buildings or offices, respectively.


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Before this date neither the local or general governments had done much to improve the avenues or streets, and few of them were more than mere passable roads. The public grounds west of the Capitol extended on the north side of the Avenue to 6th street and on the south side to 4-1/2 street, but the square adjoining the Capitol grounds between 1st and 2d streets intervened. Along the south side of the Avenue to midway between 4-1/2 and 6th streets ran the city canal. The government had improved the Avenue from the Capitol grounds to the executive departments, and boarding house keepers in the neighborhood of the President's house were accustomed to notify members of Congress and others in advertisements that their houses were "in easy walking distance of the Capitol." Along the Avenue, near the Capitol and the White House, and on 7th and F streets were the hotels, boarding and business houses, and even on these streets walking was none of the best. And, indeed, a writer in the public press of that day, in calling attention to the condition of the streets, urged that when meetings of citizens were called that they be held in daylight. He said that those who had attended a certain meeting after walking through the mud arrived "with more anger than argument, ready to vote for nothing but adjournment; catching colds and headaches." Some meetings were called in the afternoon, but the favorite hour was "early candle light." In the central part of the city, however, the entertainments, such as lectures, were opened at 7 or 8 o'clock. That rural conditions had not disappeared may be inferred from the fact that complaint was made to the authorities of the raiding of a cabbage patch near Louisiana avenue and 6th street by boys, and a sick cow had lain nearby for a week. Three streams, crossing Pennsylvania avenue at 2nd street, near 9th street and at 11th street, were spanned by simple wooden bridges, and within a few hundred yards of the Avenue were brick yards.

Nevertheless, Washington had become a live community, interested in questions of the day, and affairs connected with city life, political, religious, fraternal, educational, etc. The admission of Maine caused but little public discussion, other than congratulations on the growth of the Union, but the admission of Missouri, involving the restriction of slave territory, excited the public mind. The duel fought March 22, 1820, by which Commodore Stephen Decatur received a fatal wound at the hands of Commodore Barron, created great public excitement, and aroused much discussion of this mode of settling differences. Commodore Decatur died the evening of the same day, and his body was placed two days after in the vault at Kalorama. The highest honors were paid him. Escorted by a battalion of marines, the body was followed to the place of interment by President Monroe, members of his cabinet, and other government officers as well as a large number of citizens.

The conduct of the Indian war in the south by Gen. Jackson was another subject of discussion, for his name was being mentioned for the presidency, but the election of Mr. Monroe to the presidency for the second term was not doubted, and even before the nominations were talked of the community was satisfied that he would succeed himself. The reports of piracies and the executions therefor, the militia system, the lottery schemes, some of them to raise money for building churches, and horse racing were among the prominent subjects discussed. No less than forty-four cases of piracy were reported the preceding year, and executions were frequent.

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There yet lived here numbers who had helped achieve the independence of the nation, who were loath to give up the old style of dress, cocked hat, shad-belly coat and small clothes. With the government had come numbers of men prominent in scientific and literary circles, and as there were a number of residents of like inclinations, soon there was a community equal in intellectual standing to any of its size.

At the seat of government, besides the nomination of the presidential ticket by congressional caucus, other affairs affecting the nation at large had their inception here. The convention of Masons to form the Grand Lodge of the United States met in the House of Representatives a few years before, and in 1819 and 1820 a convention of physicians prepared the American Pharmacopia there. The Washington Library, on 11th street, south of the Avenue, incorporated some years before, numbering among its subscribers high officials of the government and citizens, was in full operation. The Columbian Institute, incorporated in 1818, for the promotion of art and science, was given by Congress that year the use of five acres of land, to be used in the objects of the association, and the site now occupied by the Botanic Gardens was selected and given in its charge. The year before the Medical Society of the District organized under a charter and a Provident Association of clerks existed.

Several debating societies were in existence, holding regular meetings. The theater at 11th and C streets having been destroyed by fire early that year, the playgoers had to be content with entertainments in Strother's Assembly Room in the hotel at 14th street and Pennsylvania avenue; "the long room over the baths" on the north side of C between 4-1/2 and 6th streets the equestrian circus opposite the baths, and the horseless circus at 13th and F streets. Horse racing was a favorite pastime and the National race course, popularly known as Holmead's, out on 14th street, was the scene of first-class contests under the auspices of the Washington Jockey Club, while between seasons here there were races at several places nearby in Maryland and Virginia.

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Congress had vacated the temporary Capitol building at 1st and A streets northeast, and resumed its sessions in the restored halls of legislation, but the local courts with the marshal's and clerk's offices remained therein for a few years. A city hall had been projected. The city councils were occupying temporary quarters, meeting that year in the Weightman buildings, corner of 6th street and Pennsylvania avenue. The public markets were mere sheds and usually in the best settled neighborhoods. The principal one was on the site of the Washington market on Pennsylvania avenue known as the Center or Marsh market, the latter name coming from the surrounding conditions. The West market was on the reservation at 20th street and the Avenue; the Capitol Hill market on East Capitol street, east of 1st street, and the Navy Yard or Branch market, east of 5th street, between K and L streets southeast. There were only two public schools, the Eastern at 3d and D streets southeast, and the Western on I street, west of 17th street, but the latter shortly after moved to 14th and G streets. There were over half a dozen private schools of which the Washington Seminary, on F street between 9th and 10th, was the largest. This afterward became Gonzaga College.

The National Intelligencer, the Washington Gazette and one or two other papers were published, the former at 7th and D streets, and the second on the Avenue east of 4-1/2 street. There were also the printing offices of Edward DeKrafft, northeast corner of 7th street and Louisiana avenue; Way & Gideon, on the Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, and Davis & Force, on the Avenue between 6th and 7th streets.

The Bank of Washington had not left its building on New Jersey avenue for its present location at Louisiana avenue and 7th street. The Bank of the United States had located at the corner of 13th and F streets; the Patriotic Bank on the Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, and the Bank of the Metropolis at 15th and F streets. There were ten church buildings, two Baptist, two catholic, one Friends or Quaker, two Methodist, two Presbyterian and one colored Methodist.

Other churches were contemplated, one each by the Catholics, Episcopalians and Presbyterians. The Unitarians were meeting in "the long room over the bath" on C street, had organized a congregation and were preparing to build. Religious services were often held in the Capitol and in the halls of the Navy and Treasury Departments.

The Tiber, Sluice run and other streams, with ponds, pumps and a few reservoirs, furnished the water supply and were used by the few fire companies. These companies had apparatus near the Capitol, at the Treasury and Post Office and near the markets.

Two hotels on the site of the Library, Congress Hall or Beall's and Queen's; three on the Avenue, Davis' or Brown's, Strother's and Tennison's, and one, O'Neale's, at 21st and I streets were the principal hostelries of Washington. There were other smaller hotels and many boarding houses well filled with sojourners. Occasions were rare when there were more people here than could be cared for. The facilities for travel were limited to steamboat, stage, carriage and horse, and not infrequently members of congress made long journeys to the city on horseback.