Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Washington Canal: Cesspool in the Midst of the Nation's Capital

 In the 1860s, a cesspool of filth literally lay at the foot of Congress.  The Washington City Canal, once envisioned as a key artery linking the capital with the West via the Potomac and C&O Canal, was little more than an open sewer.  This fetid body of water, which had never lived up to its economic promise,  was both a visual blight on the city and a serious public health nuisance.  One War Department report called the canal "that pestiferous ditch of water." 

An early plan for Washington depicting the Washington City Canal that linked the Potomac River, Tiber Creek and the C&O Canal to the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River).  Part of the canal ran along what is today Constitution Avenue just north of the National Mall with branches then proceeding south of the Capitol leading into the Anacostia River.  In 1831, the City of Washington purchased the canal from its private owners.  By the start of the Civil War, the canal was offensive to the senses of both sight and smell. 

 Although not opened until 1815, the Washington City Canal was part of the original L'Enfant Plan for Washington. George Washington and other boosters envisioned the canal as a key city artery enabling goods to easily reach the interior of the city and more efficiently linking the Potomac and the Eastern Branch.   The canal, which was up to 80 feet wide, followed the path of a natural waterway, originally known as Goose Creek later Tiber Creek.    The canal started at the foot of Seventeenth Street just south of the White House, traveled east along the Mall, turned south just in front of the U.S. Capitol, and divided at Virginia Avenue into two branches leading to the Anacostia River.

1860 photograph of the  Washington Canal at the foot of Capitol Hill. (Library of Congress)
The canal, which accommodated barges with less than a three-foot draft, never drew significant traffic.  Over the years,  a combination of sewage and silt filled the poorly maintained canal, rendering it useless for shipping by the 1850s.  Instead, it had become the dumping ground for much of the city's refuse.  An Army engineer described the canal as "the main artery of the sewerage of the largest part of the city, it being the receptacle not only of the excrement and sediment of the sewers, but also of the surface drainage."  Another observer noted that at least "70 distinct stinks" emanated from the canal, which had become little more than an open sewer.

In a March 11, 1862 report to Congress, Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French detailed the unhealthy state of the Washington Canal:  
"The Washington canal, constructed at so great an expense,and which was at the time it was made regarded as one of the greatest possible improvements to the city of Washington, is now nothing more nor less than a public nuisance.  It is the grand receptacle of nearly all the filth of this city.  The waste from all the public buildings, the hotels, and very many private residences is drained into it ... Unless something be done to clear away this immense mass of fetid and corrupt matter, the good citizens of Washington must during some hot seasons, find themselves visited by a pestilence!..."

Although the canal was owned by the city, the Commissioner of Public Buildings  noted that the Federal Government should pay its fair share of annual cleaning costs since the sewer systems of so many public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol, discharged their waste into it.  On April 5, 1862, the Washington Board of Aldermen and the Common Council passed a joint resolution endorsing Commissioner French's recommendations concerning the "necessity of speedily cleansing the Washington Canal."

Local papers also weighed in on the need for the Government to address the filthy canal.  The Washington National Republican vowed to continue to highlight the issue, noting that, "we conceive it to be a solemn duty, as a public journal, feeling an interest, as we do, in the welfare of the city, to urge the attention of the authorities to this important sanitary measure, and we intend to continue our appeals, and if nothing is done, our skirts will be clear of the guilt of the neglect."  

1862 map depicting the Washington Canal cutting just north of what is the National Mall and separating Southwest Washington, then known as "the Island," from the rest of the city.  Note that Tiber Creek emptied into the then much wider Potomac just west of the Washington Monument.  (Library of Congress)
Ambitious proposals were suggested including  drudging machines to reopen the channel,  draining and re-excavating the canal, and converting the canal into a great basin by constructing dams at its western entrance and below the mouth of Tiber creek.  However, Congress was only willing to fund periodic cleaning and  appropriated $2,000 for the cleaning of the canal in January 1863.  A civil engineer with the last name of Thomas erected gates across the canal at the 12th Street bridge, which were designed to empty mud and filth from the canal into the Potomac River.

The Washington City Canal is visible south of the White House grounds in this 1865 photograph.  Cattle, which were kept on the Washington Monument grounds during the war, are seen grazing on the canal's southern edge.  Besides its adverse effect on public health, the canal also frequently claimed wandering cows who drowned in it and on occasions persons who fell in. (Library of Congress)

A section  of the Washington City Canal is seen on the right-hand side of this 1863 photograph taken from the top of the U.S. Capitol and looking towards the west and southwest.  The canal ran to the foot of Capital Hill before turning south at 3rd Street. (Library of Congress)

The actual covering of the Washington Canal finally began in the 1870s under the oversight of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd.  Most of the canal was covered by 1880, however the James Creek section in Southwest remained an open sewer for a number of years.   B Street, known since 1931 as Constitution Avenue, was laid down over the part of the canal traversing the northern boundary of the Mall. However, an underground creek/sewer still runs underneath Constitution Avenue and has contributed to the flooding of nearby building basements over the years.
Today, there are few above ground reminders-- probably for the best-- of the Washington Canal.  At 17th Street and Constiution Avenue NW, one can still see the stone lockkeeper's house, which was located where an extension of the C&O Canal linked into the Washington Canal.  A small Canal Park will be dedicated in Southwest Washington, near Nationals Park, in November 2012 on a site where  one of the two branch canals flowed towards the Anacostia.

Annual Reports of The Secretary of War, Volume 2, Washington, D.C.:   GPO, 1867.
Baltimore Sun, January 28, 1863.
Heine, Cornelius W.  "The Washington City Canal."  Records of the Colombia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol 53/56, 1953/546, pp. 1-27.
Washington National Republican, March 29, 1862. 


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  2. The flushing gate for Tiber creek was uncovered:

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