Washington City when I Was a Boy

"Washington, from the Presidents House."
Henry Wallis, after William Henry Bartlett
American Scenery

"City of Washington."
Unknown Artist
Tanner's Universal Atlas


Washington City when I Was a Boy

As far back as I can remember all around the Capitol was a perfect wilderness. Where the Botanical Garden now stands, I have often caught fish—it was called Tiber Crick—and all around it was marshy, low ground. Where the Baltimore Depot is, I have killed many a reedbird, blackbird, and robin. Where I now reside was a cornfield—with in one square of the Capitol (just think of that). Between the Capitol and the president’s house there was very few houses. Then there was not a single pavement in the city, gravel walks were the best we could get, and not a lamp to guide the traveler.

Now besides a continuous pavement from Georgetown to the Navy Yard, it is also lighted by gas. The water from the Great Falls of the Potomac has been brought down and diffused throughout the city though there was a population of only 3,000, the boardinghouse keepers had to send to Georgetown and Alexandria for their marketing.

The city of Washington has been rebuilt, its own father would not know it now, transformed into a village to a city of palaces. Washington is in a fair way to become a city of statues. A great many senators and members of the House now build their own houses. The national capital is now an attractive city. [3A1-3A3]

Editor's Note:

Washington, DC was designed by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant as a grid pattern of streets overlaid with broad diagonal avenues that radiated from the Capitol, the President’s House, and several other key points in the city. The government moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, yet it took many years to fill the city with residents and businesses. Early visitors to the capital were surprised to find grand avenues of mud, few buildings, and virtually no cultural attractions.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Botanical garden - Congress first established a botanic garden in 1820, in an area just west of the Capitol. After moving the plants to a greenhouse behind the Old Patent Office Building for a number of years, the plants were moved into a new structure on the original garden site in 1850.  The garden was moved to its current location, southwest of the Capitol, in 1933.
  • Baltimore Depot - This probably refers to the first train station in Washington, DC, built by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Located at 2nd and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, the station opened in 1835.
  • President’s House - This refers to the White House, which is located approximately one mile northwest of the Capitol. The two buildings are connected by Pennsylvania Avenue. The term “White House” did not come into official use until 1901.
  • Georgetown - Before the Federal City was built, there were two principal towns in the area, both Potomac River ports: Georgetown, originally called the “Town of George,” and the city of Alexandria on the west side of the river. Today Georgetown is part of the northwest quadrant of Washington, DC, located about 3 miles from the Capitol.
  • Navy Yard - The Navy Yard is situated along the Anacostia River, about one mile southeast of the Capitol.
  • Great Falls of the Potomac - Water for the District of Columbia water system is taken from the Potomac at Great Falls, about 15 miles northwest of the Capitol, where it enters the Washington aqueduct. The aqueduct was built in the early 1860s by the Army Corps of Engineers, and is still working today.
  • Alexandria - Alexandria, Virginia is located a few miles southwest of the Capitol, across the Potomac River from Washington. Before the Federal City was built, the area was sparsely populated.
  • House - The U.S. House of Representatives.