Old Washington – Tiber Creek

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, February 15, 1913 [pt. 2, p. 3]

Several months ago, when repairs were being made to the pavement of Pennsylvania avenue and the street car tracks at 2d street northwest, the crown of an arch was removed and there was found a small stream, not two yards wide and of little depth, flowing into the Botanic Garden.

This find caused some surprise among the younger people, but there were a few older residents of the neighborhood who recognized it as having been once Tiber Creek, the main portion of which had been diverted into other sewers. This creek crossed tortuously through the Botanic Garden and entered into that portion of the creek which had years before been converted into the Washington City canal, emptying about midway between Missouri and Maine avenues, at 3d street.

The site of Botanic Garden at that time was a wild waste, and the bed of the creek was mostly of white gravel. Prior to the ‘30s some use had been made of that portion eastward to the Capitol grounds, and about 1836 near about the center were two or three greenhouses. In that year the waters which had been fed from Smith’s spring, one of the heads of the Tiber, to the Capitol, giving a supply to man, beast and goldfish, were conveyed into the Botanic Garden, and there was a “meeting of the waters” before they entered the canal. In 1850 there were considerable improvements, made, and a part of the public grounds westward of the garden was converted into a nursery. In 1855-56 more than $14,000 was expended in draining the grounds near the national greenhouses and for walling up the creek with brick.

Originally the creek was spanned by a small foot bridge. Near the creek there was a tree, at which it is said the execution of James McQuirk for the murder of his wife took place in 1803, the first execution in the District of Columbia. McQuirk was taken from a temporary jail in the square north of C street between 4-1/2 and 6th, and, attended by a priest, to the place where he resisted the placing of the rope about his neck, and, disregarding the advice of the priest, jumped from the scaffold and had to be lifted again onto the platform before the sentence of the law was carried out. At Mr. Jefferson’s second inauguration in 1805, he rode horseback, and when he arrived at the Tiber it was found that in consequence of a freshet he could not ford the stream. His horse was thereupon tied to a tree and he walked over the simple foot bridge to the Capitol, where the inaugural ceremonies took place.

Square Partly Built Up
The square east of the creek, north of the avenue, had been partly built up, and among the houses were the brick building of John Purdy, who settled there in the 20’s, and carried on painting for a time, and later became one of our leading citizens, many years afterward having an extensive lumber yard on 1st street and on the canal a woodyard. At the corner of 1st street in the early days was Archibald Stewart’s grocery, and nearby the coach factory of Solomon & David Steward. There were other improvements west of this, among them the Andrew Jackson tavern, the place marked by a swinging sign on which was a painting of the general. Before 1820 Mrs. Marr had a tavern here and John Foy, gardener of the Capitol grounds, was a seedsman nearby.

There were also some indifferent improvements. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company located its depot on the northeast corner of 2d street and the Avenue in 1835, a frame tavern eing conducted on the opposite corner by Michael Brady under the name of the Railroad Hotel. Near this was a small two-story house which in after years was occupied by William Thompson, a noted justice of the peace. The Railroad tavern about 1850 gave way to the erection of a three-story brick building by Ulysses Ward, in which the Columbian Fountain, a temperance paper, was published by him, his son (afterward a noted Methodist minister) being the editor. Wendell & Van Renthuysen, contractors for the congressional printing, established their printing office here, and until they had erected the building at the corner of North Capitol and H streets, now known as the government printing office, used this plant. Then it became the office of the sentinel. Beverly Tucker, editor, also published the Washington News, a sprightly weekly journal regarded s a model local paper.

There were some colored residents midway of this square, among them Moses Black, who informed the public he was “a white and yellow washer.” In the 40’s and after John T. Killmon was a grocer at the east corner of the square – now the circle on which is the Peace monument, it not having been laid out until after the war.

A wooden bridge a few feet wide spanned the creek on the north side of the Avenue in the early days, when vehicles forded the stream, later giving way to a wider structure, first of wood, then of brick. North of this the stream veered to the east through the northwest corner of the square, crossing B street into the square north. The square west of 2d street was public ground until 1822, when, under the ct for changing the course of the canal, it was plotted into building lots. The northwest corner of 2d street and the Avenue was afterward the property of J. Simonds, who lived there, and adjoining H.V. Hill had a cabinet shop. This property was bought by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company and converted into a depot in 1835.

Four Trains a Day
This depot was used from July, 1835, until 1852, and in the early days there were but two trains each way a day, and the fare was $2.50, the ordinary time being two hours and a quarter between the two cities, Baltimore and Washington.

The square north, now occupied by the census bureau, was bought also by the railroad company and, here was built a freight house and stabling for horses, which were used in moving the cars. And after 1852 Matthew G. Emery bought the railroad property and conducted a stone yard there.

Adjoining the railroad tracks on B street was a three-story brick building used by B. Shadd as a tavern. Mr. Shadd moved therefrom in 1848 to a frame building at the southwest corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 3d street, and opened the Union restaurant, in which he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Charles Mades, some ten years afterward. There were also on the Avenue front some brick houses erected in the forties, one of them being occupied by Mrs. Brawner and another by Mrs. Brashears as boarding houses, and with the latter Col. Shillington was a sojourner. He was the agent for the Baltimore Sun, which at that time devoted much space to the local news of Washington.

There was in this square the residence and store of John O’Meara, who kept a small hardware and variety store, with sporting goods, and it was probably the first sporting goods establishment in the city. There was also the Green Tree House of McGrann, another very popular place, and early in the fifties the Adams Express Company built one of the fist iron front buildings ever erected in this city. About 1845 Gen. Walter Jones erected a hotel at 3d street, and it is interesting to know that the columns on the 3d street front were made originally for the Capitol, but they were too small for use there and were taken for the hotel. It was opened by Burlin Brown, and was a favorite stopping place for members of Congress.