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."
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!..."
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."
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.