Monday, October 28, 2013

The ill fated Washington City Canal: filled in and paved over in 1871

            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.         

Work at the beginning was slow and arduous.  Congress created a new canal company in 1809 when the original had little to show for its effort, and funded it with $100,000.  A groundbreaking ceremony with President James Madison took place on May 2, 1810 in southeast Washington.  Construction commenced, but was suspended during the War of 1812. 

            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.                

The fanfare and hopes for the canal as a commercial success shortly faded, however, as silt and tidal nuances took their effect.  The canal could only handle barges drawing a depth of three feet, eliminating most boat traffic.  It was used moderately and suffered financial losses until the city purchased the canal company in 1831.  Repairs fixed the problem of overflowing during high tide and empty portions during low tide.     

            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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lost Mansions of Farragut Square

The Pepper Mansion

Unknown to most office workers today that traverse K Street and Connecticut Avenue is that up until the 1920s, what is now high rise office buildings was once the most socially important residential neighborhood of the city.  Oversized mansions and spacious lawns lined K Street in the nineteenth century.  Three of these were built at 1701 to 1705 K Street facing Farragut Square that were designed in 1873 by Adolph Cluss, who would occupy the center townhouse himself; the elaborate Second Empire corner mansion (left) was built for Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, but purchased later by two very socially prominent families.          

Much has been written and attributed to Gov. Alexander R. Shepherd (1835-1902), who made a fortune in real estate speculation in this city following the Civil War.  He became infamous during his tenure as the head of the Board of Public Works beginning in 1871, directing $30 million in contracts to close acquaintances before becoming Governor of the District.  However, the depression of 1873 and corruption charges by Congress led to his removal from office in 1874, and personal bankruptcy. 

With the mansion being just a year old, it languished in the court system until the owner of a $45,000 private mortgage note on the house, George Seckel Pepper (1808-1890) of Philadelphia, right, petitioned to obtain title to the house in 1876.  The Shepherd legacy reappeared, however, when it was discovered that his note only covered the front portion of the house, and excluded a twenty foot extension of the house that featured a picture gallery.  The court also discovered that Shepherd had also obtained a $35,000 mortgage from Mary J. Gray for the same property. 

The legal situation took almost two decades to resolve, at which time the house was leased to the Russian Legation and as a residence for its Minister.  Pepper eventually gained title to the house, but not until 1890.  He was a philanthropist and lawyer who had graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1827.  He was left a large estate by his father and devoted himself to its management and to philanthropic work focusing primarily on the financial concerns of Philadelphia He also served as the President of the Academy of Music and of the Academy of Fine Arts, and upon his death, bequeathed half of his $2 million estate to the University of Pennsylvania, the Free Library, and the Academy of Art. 

Susan Draper
The corner mansion at 1705 K Street was sold in 1890 to General William F. Draper (1842-1910), the same year he married his second wife, the former Susan Preston.  Draper was a well known Union General during the Civil War.  Susan was the daughter of Major General William Preston of Kentucky, a Major General in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. This is perhaps the only case on record of a General of the Union Army marrying a daughter of a General of the Confederate Army.  To tie the families even closer, Susan’s sister Jessie married William’s brother, George Albert Draper.

William’s first wife was Lydia D. Warren Joy Draper, whom he married in September of 1862 and had five children; William Franklin Draper Jr., George Otis Draper, Edith Draper, Arthur Joy Draper, and Clare Hill Draper.  Lydia died in 1884.

William Draper
Draper spent four years in the Civil War in a remarkable career that eluded both serious injury and death.  In the Burnside Expedition he became signal-officer on the general's staff, engaging in the battles of Roanoke Island, New-Berne, and Fort Macon when he was promoted first lieutenant and returned to his regiment.  In August, 1862, he was commissioned captain in the Thirty-sixth Massachusetts and went through the rest of the Antietam campaign and battle of Fredericksburg, and was then sent to Newport News.  In June, 1863, he joined Grant's army at Vicksburg, taking part in the capture, and subsequently in the march to Jackson and the fighting in that locality. His regiment was reduced, from fighting and sickness, from six hundred and fifty in June to one hundred and ninety-eight in September.

The war over, he then engaged in the manufacture of cotton-machinery, forming a company with his father called George Draper & Sons.  A mechanical expert, he received a record fifty patents on various implements and machinery that created a fortune. 

1887 Hopkins Map
He served as colonel on the staff of Governor John Davis Long from 1880 to 1883, and was elected himself as a Republican to the Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Congresses (March 4, 1893-March 3, 1897).  He was also appointed an Ambassador and Minister Plenipotentiary to Italy from 1897-1899.  His daughter Margaret from his second marriage met and married Prince Andrea Boncompagni-Ludovisi-Rondinell-Vitelli of Italy in a lavish ceremony at the K Street house in 1916.     

William Draper died before the wedding, however, on January 28, 1910.  He was interred in Hopedale, Massachusetts, where he maintained a summer house.   

The K Street houses were all converted into office space in the 1920s, and were razed in 1952 for the construction of the present day office building; itself being renovated several times from its original facade (right).  

Copyright Paul K. Williams