By Frank Leone
(part two of our three part Washington Canal series – see Washington’s Canals)
Constitution Avenue now covers the path of the Washington City Canal, once anticipated as a boon to commerce in Washington City, then denounced as a “useless, foul, and unsightly ditch” and covered over as a sewer.
Pierre L’Enfant’s original plans for the new City of Washington city included plans for a 2½ mile city canal. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supported the plan, which would transport goods to the City. But funds could not be raised through lotteries or otherwise and the canal was slow in coming. Finally, in 1802, Congress incorporated the Washington Canal Company to build it, hiring as chief engineer, Benjamin H. Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol. Like the C&O, the Washington Canal was built primarily by Irish immigrant workers, and it was built between 1810 to 1815.
Starting at 17th St., the canal followed the path of Tiber Creek (present-day Constitution Avenue) to the U.S. Capitol, it then turned south towards the Anacostia River where it split into two branches. The western branch of the canal terminated at the James Creek Marina at what is now the campus of the National Defense University while the eastern branch connected the heart of the federal district to the present-day Washington Navy Yard.
Initially, small boats (towed by mules) and rafts carried firewood, stone and other building materials for federal buildings and private houses, flour, and whiskey. Starting in 1833, smaller C&O Canal boats, many carrying coal, traversed the City Canal. The canal brought goods to Center Market (now site of the National Archives) and in the early days fish and waterfowl were plucked from the canal for sale at the market.
In 1830, the City of Washington purchased the canal and operated it until it closed. The City wanted the C&O Canal to terminate in Washington and threatened to withhold its million dollar investment in the C&O unless it built a connection to the Washington City Canal. The C&O Canal Company constructed the Washington Branch, which ran from the Rock Creek Basin, south along 27th St., across Easby’s Point, then west along Tiber Creek, where it met the Washington Canal. The Lockkeeper’s house, which controlled the connecting lock still stands at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue.
Nearly from the beginning, the Washington Canal had inadequate wooden locks and was affected by tides which caried in sediments (and recirculated sewage) from both ends, high water which overran the banks, or low water and debris which made it impassable. The Canal Company never had sufficient funds to keep the canal functioning. Also, it wasn’t usual for people, cows, and other animals to fall and drown.
Although in January 1851, its superintendent referred to “the broad and beautiful Washington City Canal” (Daily National Intelligencer, 1/29/1851, p. 3), terms like “our great nuisance,” “disgusting nuisance,” “noxious,” “stagnant ditch,” and “open sewer” were more commonly used, as were references to odors and decaying animals (including waste from Central Market) in connection with the “Great Ditch.”
Moreover, the low bridges at Georgetown, the silting of the Rock Creek Basin, and the impassibility of the Washington Branch of the C&O Canal, frustrated the goal of making Washington City a major port for reshipment of coal.
Renovations to the Washington Canal were made from the 1830s to the 1870s, but conditions continued to deteriorate and the canal saw little actual use after 1855. A major effort was made to restore the canal in 1870, but the dredging effort failed. In 1871, D.C. became a Territory under Public Works Commissioner, then Governor Alexander “Boss” Shepherd. He covered the Tiber Creek part of the canal, and over time the remainder was filled in as well.
Sources: Cornelius W. Heine, “The Washington City Canal,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 1953/1956, vol. 51-56, pp. 1-27; Lockkeeper’s House, National Historic Register Additional Documentation, National Park Service, Aug. 19, 2022; J.D. Dickey, Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C., Lyon’s Press, 2015; Evening Star, “Georgetown Affairs,” January 13, 1873; Evening Star, August 9, 1871; Foggy Bottom Association History Project.