Living in DC
Murder, murder, murder… with a side of prostitution. And, what is night soil? All coming your way on part 2 of your DC history lesson with the DC Real Estate Mama! (Check out pt 1 here if you missed it to learn about the juicy history of Washington DC)
The first half of the 19th century was rough for Washington city.
Boarding houses popped up all over the city to house the influx of people moving to Washington. But along with that came lots of violence as well. The biggest sport was cockfighting. Washington Circle was a major site for cockfighting in DC.
Also, there were humans fighting. Duels were common. Congressmen went to work with weapons on them, and it was common to physically fight things out. All in a day’s work!
In the 1850’s there was growing dissension between those who were pro-slavery and those who were not. Lincoln gets back to DC in 1861 to start his first Presidential term. He hadn’t been there since his one term in Congress ended in 1849. What he found was a city unchanged from 12 years earlier.
The Capitol and Monument were unfinished. Hundreds of cattle were grazing right in front of the monument on the grass. DC gets baseball at this time too – the team started as a baseball club made up of government workers from mostly the IRS and Treasury and they used to play right next to the Capitol.
Also during the Civil War years, there were over 450 brothels in DC – many around Pennsylvania Ave, the White House and Capitol Hill area. Attempts to control the population of prostitutes, estimated to be up to 15,000 women, were taken over by Civil War General Joseph Hooker. He moved them to an area known as “murder bay” because of all the slums and unsavory characters there. And no, the term “hooker” didn’t come from his last name. It’s a good story though – check out the video!
Depending on their position on slavery, states started leaving the Union. Lincoln expected Virginia, was working hard to not lose MD as then DC would be surrounded by 2 Confederate States. In the spring of 1862, DC emancipated all slaves.
As a city, Washington looked horrible. Many residents left, many freed slaves were living in poor conditions, without work, prices were going up. Malaria, Typhoid, measles, TB were rampant in the city.
The administration practically ran DC as a dictatorship – arresting anyone believed to be spying or a southern sympathizer.
April 14, 1865 President Lincoln and his wife went to see Our American Cousin at Fords Theatre at 10th and E and he was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth.
Post Civil War the population grew tremendously and the infrastructure couldn’t keep up. President Grant went to work making progress on the city that the presidents before him had either been unwilling or unable to achieve.
In 1867, DC had 106,000 people, and 1/3 are black.
In 1871 Congress made DC a district, incorporated it and this meant it would get a Governor. But they simultaneously passed the Organic Act which gives the President the power to appoint the governor, as well as a council, Board of Health, Board of Public Works. Washington City lost the right to choose their own local leaders.
Things were so bad in DC with pigs and cows roaming the city leaving their waste all over and people were leaving their own human waste, called “night soil” outside.
The Gilded Age was a time at the end of the 1800’s of a lot of economic growth. Alexander Shepherd, once a plumber, now a politician, is appointed to the Board of Public Works. As a result of his alliances with other business people, he was able to accomplish a lot for the city. By the end of 1874, there were now 100 miles of paved streets, 200 miles of sidewalks, 30 miles of water mains, 70 miles of sewer. The squares and circles that L’Enfant envisioned were built, and Congress names them after Civil War generals.
Shepherd was ruthless in his quest to develop the city and was ousted when it was learned that he had been skimming money from his projects. By 1874, the Governor post and boards are replaced with a 3-member commission who had direct rule of the city. The city has no congressional representation. It stays like this for almost 100 years.
At the same time, the abandoned Washington Monument is finally finished as well as the Capital Grounds.
Up until this time in DC, the prominent citizens lived in Georgetown, Capitol Hill or close to the White House. The Senators & Congressmen start bringing their families to live in DC, instead of it being a stopping place for them when Congress was in session. People start moving to the North and West – up 14th Street, over toward Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues.
William Morris Stewart, Senator from Nevada, is the first to buy land in Dupont Circle. He built his mansion at the intersection of Massachusetts and Connecticut. His west coast affiliation results in Dupont Circle originally being named Pacific Circle but was renamed to Dupont Circle in 1884.
In 1888 the city gets streetcars.
The actual northern boundary of the city was called Boundary Street, which you would now know as Florida Avenue. Below or south of Florida/Boundary was the City of Washington, and north of it was the County of Washington. These were the suburbs.
If you note how going north, there is also a steep hill that exists north of Florida into neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights. It was difficult to travel to these areas without cars back then so people often had a house in the “city” and one in the suburbs – a few miles away.
There was a late 1800’s attempt to fence off Ledroit Park for white people only but it was struck down in court.
Early 1900’s sees continued growth and unfortunate slums/alley dwellers
James McMillan, a Senator from Michigan, heads up the District of Columbia Committee and along with his aide Charles Moore, they managed to make incredible progress for DC. McMillan then helps the inception of the Senate Park Committee.
He appointed 3 commissioners to get the city design back on track. They develop a plan for the city based on the orientation of The Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Louvre becomes the Capitol, the Arc de Triomphe will be a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Place de la Concorde the Monument.
Union Station was conceived at this time as well, on Swampoodle which was lowlands just north of the Capitol building, so named because it fill with swamps and pools after rain.
The first trains ran through in 1907. This didn’t come without cost – thousands of Irish laborers lived here and were displaced. The Union Station building as well as others in the city including Carnegie Library, Senate and House buildings, Museum of Natural History, first part of the Dept of Agriculture, and the National Cathedral were all completed at this time.
In 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador planted 3000 cherry trees at the tidal basin.
Woodrow Wilson took office and was President from 1913-1921. The city and country simultaneously went backward and forward at the same time. He enacted income tax, reformed banking system, gave women the right to vote.
(Well, begrudgingly. He wasn’t really a believer, and tidbit – he signed the bill into law that made Mother’s day a thing.) He created Prohibition.
And, he instituted segregation policies in 1913 that had not existed for 50 years since the Civil War. This doesn’t get unraveled again until some 40 years later with President Truman and President Eisenhower.
Wilson appointed Louis Brownlow to be a city commissioner and he took on public welfare in the city – police, fire, health and welfare. He found that the city’s hospital was archaic, the police dept was a mess – he started reforming each agency. He appointed a new Police Chief who then got the roads and traffic laws in order.
His term as commissioner is dominated by a few major issues. Our entrance into WW1, the Influenza epidemic of 1918, Prohibition, woman’s suffrage and race relations. DC is also experiencing a massive population growth and the city’s services can’t keep up.
1920 Women get the right to vote but when 480 black American soldiers came home from WWI, they were met with a more segregated city than the one they left. Then the news began publishing reports of black men attacking white women, all hell breaks loose and race riots start – black against white. Wait.
When Wilson left office, he bought a house on S Street in Kalorama which many thought weird because he didn’t seem to like the city very much. In addition, he was buried at the National Cathedral 3 years later which seemed even odder. He is the only president to be buried there.
The Lincoln Monument was finally complete and dedicated though, but not without more drama. Where to put it. Should it be bronze or marble. Sitting or standing. Men cannot make decisions to save their lives.
In 1923, Calvin Coolidge takes office and brings a calm and competent wave to the white house. He appoints the commissioners to DC, and also increased funding for schools.