In the early years of the United States, there was great interest in creating canals within cities emulating European counterparts. These were not for aesthetics, but for commerce. Pierre Charles L’Enfant included one in his design for the Capital City, but Commissioners in 1792 deemed it too expensive to construct. A lottery held in 1796 to raise funds for its construction was unsuccessful.
In 1802, Congress granted a charter for the Washington Canal Company, and construction began in several portions of the planned route. The canal was to connect the Anacostia River (then known as the Eastern Branch), which was navigable into Maryland, with the Potomac, which was seen as a gateway to the West. It would later connect to the C&O Canal.
The canal opened to much fanfare in November of 1815. It stretched from an entrance point near the Washington Navy Yard, proceeded north and west with several branches including James and Tiber creeks, and ran westerly exactly where Constitution Avenue exists today. It joined the Potomac River just south of the White House, long before the western half of the National Mall had been filled in.
In 1833, an extension of the C&O Canal was completed to incorporate the Washington Canal. Around 1835, a lock keeper’s house was built at the eastern terminus of the C&O Canal, where the C&O Canal emptied into Tiber Creek and the Potomac River. It still stands at the southwest corner of Constitution Avenue, and 17th Street, NW.
The canal was cleaned and dredged in 1849, but the city’s promise to provide work and matching funds to Congressional budgets for the canal never materialized. In an era when most residents did not know how to swim, the canal provided a death trap to hundreds, especially young curious children or those wandering the city after a visit to a local saloon.
In the 1850s, Washington and other cities had begun to utilize railroads for most of the commerce transportation, and both the Washington and C&O canals were neglected. During the Civil War when the city’s population boomed, the canal was used as a storm drain and open sewer. It was also a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying malaria, and was such a health threat that it prompted the abandonment of the Van Ness mansion (see Van Ness mansion, pg. ?)
Various proposals were introduced to either rehabilitate the city canal or fill it in. In 1871, the city’s controversial head of the Public Works Alexander “Boss” Shepherd had the Tiber Creek portion of the canal be covered over, which took years to complete. The new street that was constructed over this portion of the canal was initially designated as B Street, NW, but is known today as Constitution Avenue, NW.
The southern portion of the Washington City Canal remained open for years afterwards, but eventually was also paved over. A street constructed south of the Capitol over that section of the canal now connects Independence Avenue, SW, and E Street, SE. Formerly designated as Canal Street, the northernmost section of the street was later renamed to Washington Avenue in commemoration of the state of Washington.
Copyright Paul K. Williams