Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The McMillian Sand Filtration Reservoir



           

The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site, bounded by Michigan Avenue, North Capitol, Channing and First Streets, NW has been a curiosity with residents and visitors alike ever since its completion in 1905. The 25-acre site consists of regulator houses, sand bins, washers, and massive underground sand filtration beds that treated and cleaned water held at the McMillan Reservoir before delivering it to individual homes in the city. Its innovative system of water purification led to the elimination of typhoid epidemics and the reduction of many other communicable diseases during its 80-year existence.

            Early residents of the city were dependent upon local springs for their water needs, with three downtown sections of the city utilizing the City Spring on the north side of C Street, NW, between 4th and 6th Streets; Caffery’s Spring (also known as the Hotel Spring) at the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets, NW; one located on the public space property located at 13th Street, NW, north of I Street; and another further west, near the center of Franklin Park, (now Judiciary Square); and the Smith Spring, now the McMillan Reservoir itself.

            In fact, the earliest documented instance of water being piped throughout the District’s streets for public use was in 1808, when the city permitted residents living in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, to “convey” water from the city spring to their neighborhood via pipes fashioned from hollowed out trees that were sealed end to end and buried under the street. In 1850, the Potomac River was identified as the District’s principal water source in a congressionally funded engineering study to determine the most available mode of supplying water to the expanding city.

            The study was overseen by Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, who later served as Quartermaster General of the Union Army; he is credited with planning and building the structures and facilities that would eventually become the Washington Aqueduct, which first became operational on January 3, 1859.  The Washington Aqueduct system was believed to be sufficient for the future water needs of the city, but by 1902, it was no longer adequate due to population growth and the need for a filtration system to treat the heavy sediment found in the Potomac water.
          
  A site was chosen for a massive sand filtration plant next to the Washington City (later McMillan) Reservoir, and construction began in the spring of 1903. The plant itself was designed by Lieutenant Col. Alexander M. Miller, who had begun to experiment with various types of slow sand and mechanical filters to purify the water supply being delivered to thousands of city homes. He had recommended mechanical filters, which was met by resistance by the Washington medical community, and a compromise was reached in which slow sand filters would be used, to which a coagulant was added during times of high turbidity in the water.

            The complex, eventually renamed the McMillan Reservoir and Slow Sand Filter Plant, consists of a pumping station for raising water from the reservoir to the 29 massive underground, natural sand filter beds--each consisting of about an acre of surface area, a 15 million-gallon filtered water reservoir, a pumping station with three centrifugal pumps, various boilers, and a power plant. Each of the sand filters consists of about 40 inches of sand supported on 12 inches of gravel through which the water flows. The combined capacity of the filters produced about 80 million gallons of purified water each day.

            The plant was completed and began operation by October, 1905, resulting in a vast improvement of the quality of water being delivered to residents. Its bacterial content was reduced by over 99 percent, and diseases such as typhoid fever were reduced from 47 to just eight residents out of every 100,000 during the period from 1909 to 1919. The water was also starkly clear, such a change from the previous muddy condition that one woman went on record as saying, “It was almost immodest to take a bath in clear water.”


            One of the challenges that emerged, however, was the cleaning of the sand filters.  The first two inches of sand in each filter had to be shoveled and removed by hand, and then flushed clean by a reversal system of water, discharging mud into the city sewer system. The cleaned sand was processed in the large cylindrical concrete structures seen today above the surface of the sand beds. The cleaning structures are often mistaken for the sand filters themselves. Over 20,000 tons of sand were washed every year, and was eventually returned to the sand beds via subterranean carts pulled by donkeys.

            The sand washing process continued until mechanized washing machines were introduced in the 1920s. Earlier, in 1913, a McMillan memorial fountain was dedicated alongside the reservoir, both named for Michigan Senator James McMillan. It remained there until 1941, when excavation for a new clear water basin was required to serve the needs of a growing city population. It also served as the site of a battery of anti-aircraft guns throughout World War II.

            The complex continued to serve its original purpose until 1986; ownership was transferred to the city a year later, and the site has been abandoned ever since. The overall McMillan Reservoir site was designated a DC Historic Landmark in 1991. Due to its continuing deterioration, the DC Preservation League placed it on its “Most Endangered” list in 2000, and only recently have plans been discussed for its redevelopment.

Copyright Paul K. Williams 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Other Octagon House in Washington DC




Today considered a rare site, octagonal houses in the United States have dotted the landscape since the 1600s, reaching their zenith of popularity in the mid 1800s.  Washington, DC had five, one of which was built at 1830 Phelps Place on land that is today known as the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood.  It was constructed in 1865 by two brothers, William and Edward Bebb, and it stood at that site until 1950.
      
The brothers then worked at the Patent Office, but William had once served as the Governor of Ohio, from 1846 to 1849.  He had been born on December 8, 1802, in the small town of Paddy's Run (later Shandon), Ohio.  Their father, Edward Bebb, was a Welsh immigrant. 
 

Many book published in the mid 1880s told the virtues and uniqueness of living in an eight sided house, but it was one in particular that perhaps best explained the many advantages of storage, closets, ventilation, and economy of construction: A Home For All by Orson S. Fowler.  His book was printed with eight editions, and included plans, drawings, and suggestions for construction, and was responsible for more than 500 such buildings constructed along the eastern seaboard. 
 

Shortly after it was built, the Bebb brothers sold the house to Leroy R. Tuttle, who served as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury from 1866 to 1876, during Reconstruction.  He later made a fortune in real estate speculation in the city, and had the noted New York architect Stanford White design a new house for him close by at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Leroy Place (razed in 1955 for a hotel).  Tuttle continued to own the octagon house, however, and rented it to various families over the next several decades. 
 
Tuttle recounted one rather unusual story that took place during his tenure at the Treasury Department.  At the onset of the nationwide financial panic of 1873, his college at the New York City branch of the Treasury Department telegrammed that $10 million dollars in cash was needed with no time to spare.  Concerned about theft, Tuttle dressed down, packed the cash in large carpetbags, and made the nine hour train ride to New York overnight to avoid suspicion.

The octagon house was eventually sold by the Tuttle family to the Holton Arms School in 1948.  It was razed two years later for an addition to the school that never materialized, and the lot remained vacant until a series of new townhouses were built there in 1976.  Before it was torn down, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) carefully recorded the house with measured drawings of many of its details, elevations, and sectionals, all seen here and housed at the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Sunday, August 24, 2014

German Spies at the Mayflower Hotel? It Happened in 1942.



The stately Mayflower Hotel at 1127 Connecticut Avenue has played host to a large variety of prominent international figures, European Royalty, US Presidents, and Hollywood stars.  In 1942, it also housed a German spy named George John Dasch, left, who checked into room 351 on June 18, 1942 with the intention of a meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to reveal his spy mission, coined Operation Pastorius.

Dasch never met with Hoover, who unbeknown to him, lunched every day in the Hotel’s dining room.  Instead, Dash went to the FBI headquarters and was directed to meet with an FBI agent named Duane L. Traynor.
 


Construction of the $5 million dollar Mayflower Hotel at 1127 Connecticut Avenue began in April of 1923 by developer Allen E. Walker.  He hired the New York architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore to design the hotel, which featured 400 individual rooms.  In addition, the hotel offered 100 large apartments for rent, as was typical of hotels during the era, and whose occupants entered through a separate entrance on DeSales Street.  The apartment section took up the entire eastern half of the building, facing 17th Street. Since its opening, the Mayflower had held inaugural balls for every President since Calvin Coolidge in 1925.  In the 1950s, the hotel converted most of the apartments into individual guest rooms; however, two apartments remain to this day in the hotel.          

Dasch’s true story, revealed in detail over the next several days while under constant surveillance at the Hotel, would eventually shock citizens all across the country.  Dasch, a German-American citizen, had returned to Germany at the beginning of WWII, as did many people with allegiance to their Fatherland.  He and seven others were then chosen by the F├╝hrer to participate in a sabotage training school led by Walter Kapp, former propaganda chief of the German-American Bund, an American division of the German Nazi party.  The training took place beginning in the fall of 1941 at a former farmhouse at Quenz Lake, west of Potsdam, Germany.

 
The intensive training consisted of laboratory studies in explosives, and creating a variety of simple delay detonating switches using household goods such as Chile saltpeter and sawdust, or dried peas and cork.  Dasch was eventually selected as a leader of a group of three other men, while a similar group was headed by a German-American named Edward Kerling.  After additional physical training and taking on aliases and tutoring in American slang, the eight men learned that they were to be sent to America to carry out their sabotage mission on factories, railroads, and bridges. 

Their top secret mission was coined Operation Pastorius, named after Franz Daniel Pastorius, a leader of the first group of Germans to arrive in America in 1683.  The two groups of four men would each be carried across the Atlantic Ocean beginning on May 28, 1942 in German U-boats, the notorious submarines that had hampered transatlantic travel for steamships for many years.

The trip would take seventeen days in cramp quarters and rough seas.  Dasch’s group, on the U-202, would land ashore near the Hampton’s on Long Island, while the other, aboard U-584, landed successfully at Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, Florida.  Dasch’s group used a rubber boat to get ashore from the U-boat, and quickly buried an array of explosives and sabotage materials, but were met by a Coast Guard patrolman who questioned them before allowing them to flee.  Meanwhile, the U-boat had become stuck on a sandbar, and droned its diesel engines until dawn in an attempt to drive itself off the sand, and did so before the Coast Guard could muster up any resistance along the unpopulated shore. 

The saboteurs also carried with them huge amounts of American currency, nearly $100,000 worth, to aid them in their mission.  Dasch’s group headed to New York City,  where they split up into two groups, and proceeded to buy clothes, stay in upscale hotels, and visited many bordellos and bars.  Kerling’s group went undetected at their landing, and proceeded to Chicago and then to New York, where they were to meet with Dasch to begin their assaults on America industry and transportation.  Several members also visited their families and former mistresses, much to their surprise. 
 
News of the botched Long Island landing was kept secret from the public, and Dasch was worried that the authorities would eventually track them down.  So, he hatched a plan to betray his fellow conspirators and called the FBI from New York to request a meeting, thinking he would be hailed a hero for exposing the mission.  They treated his call as a hoax, which brought Dasch to the Mayflower Hotel on June 18, 1942 with the intention of meeting in person with Hoover himself.

The FBI agent that met with Dasch first responded with trepidation, but as details were revealed, and accounts from the Coast Guard confirmed his actions, Dasch was followed in Washington constantly as he dined, visited bars, and enjoyed his last days of freedom.  He eventually led the FBI to the other seven saboteurs by revealing their predetermined meeting places in New York.
 
Dasch had been tricked into thinking that his guilty plea would save him from a trial and eventual execution.  Hoover called a press conference in hast, and took credit for discovering the secret mission, to much fanfare.  President Roosevelt called for a Military Tribunal to be held at the Justice Department building.  Kenneth C. Royall of the War Department was chosen to serve as their defense attorney, and the tribunal began on July 6, 1942. 
 
Royall briefly succeeded in interrupting the Tribunal in an attempt to have it moved to the Supreme Court, which was denied by the Court after a brief hearing in which Hoover attended.  The prisoners were held in the empty women’s section of the D.C. Jail, then located in SW DC.  The tribunal meant that only limited and controlled press releases were available to the public on the details of the trial.  

All eight saboteurs, including Dasch, were found guilty on August 2, 1942; the following day Roosevelt accepted the outcome, and sentenced six of them to death by electric chair.  Dasch and a conspirator named Ernst Burger were sentenced to long prison terms.  However, both the result and execution were kept secret from the public.  He assigned General Albert Cox to oversee the most dramatic mass execution in American history since the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators.    
               
On August 8, 1942, six of the convicted saboteurs were electrocuted to death at the D.C. Prison’s chair, nicknamed “old sparky,” in just over an hour’s time.  The chair was kept in a niche above the prison dining room as a constant reminder to the prisoners.  Reporters, still not told of the outcome or the planned execution, held vigil outside the prison and watched for a browning of lights, indicating that electricity was being directed to the chair.    
                                                       
It was only later that day, at 1:27 p.m., as the White House Press secretary Steve Early read from a typewritten sheet the outcome of the Tribunal, as well as the executions already carried out, that the public learned of the prisoner’s deaths.  Their bodies were buried in secret on the evening of August 11th on the southernmost tip of the District, in a pauper’s gravesite near Blue Plains waste water treatment center.  They were marked with wooden headstones, marked with numbers 276 to 281. 

Dasch and Burger were eventually sent to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.  In January 1945, prisoners threatened to throw Dasch off the roof during an uprising, unless their demands were met.  President Truman pardoned Dasch and Burger in April of 1948, and both were deported to a then devastated Germany.  Dasch escaped into the Russian zone in October of that year, and Burger wrote a letter to Hoover requesting a return to U.S. prison, where food and housing were plentiful.  Dasch published his account of Operation Pastorius in a 1959 book called Eight Spies Against America; he died in Germany in 1992.  Burger had died earlier, in 1962.     

Copyright Paul K. Williams