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The Canal that Flows Beneath the City

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Something I love about DC is that no matter how long I live here, there always seems to be something new to discover. Sometimes it's the background of an obscure statue, or a small church. Or, the subject of this post: the story of what could have been an amazing feature of the city who's chance was wasted because of poor planning. For those not familiar with this particular piece of DC lore, I'd like to inform you that there used to be a canal in DC. Most people in the region know the C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal and it's accompanying pathway (where Mary Pinchot Meyer was murdered, something I talk about on my #ladiesofthegeorgetownsettour) and have seen the boat locks of Georgetown that mark its end. However, fewer remember or are even aware of the fact that the C&O had a predecessor that ran from the Potomac into DC and was one of the original features of the city plans laid out by Peter L'Enfant. The story of the fabled waterway is a story of struggle between local DIstrict interests and the federal government, which is responsible for administering DC's budget.

The idea started with Tiber Creek. Tiber Creek was a waterway that cut into the land that was set to be the capital, bringing water from the Potomac that then ran out into several smaller creeks. L'Enfant saw this natural feature of the topography as something that could be tamed and molded into a Grand Canal that imitated the one that flowed through Versailles, first to transport building materials and imports/exports as the city was being built, and then used to convey people on pleasure cruises, sailing past the picturesque sights of the White House, gracious town homes, fountains and the Capital building, before turning south and emptying out at the Navy Yard.

Grand Canal at Versailles - photo credits to Paris Digest

Sadly the grand vision was not to last. The company founded by George Washington to undertake this project, the Potowmack Canal Company, was badly managed and had a difficult time finding funding from either private investors or the federal government, so they dropped the project and disbanded. Then a man by the name of Tom Law, who already had been involved in a couple of disastrous land speculation schemes, saw the possibility of a canal for the new capital city as a sure investment. He started the new Washington Canal Company, which managed to raise enough funds from the Maryland State congress to break ground in 1809, and then a wee bit of Federal funding. They promptly ran out of money in 1812 and then further construction was suspended during the War of 1812. They resumed again when the war ended, and the Washington City Canal, and sometimes called the Tiber Canal, was completed in 1815.

Had the Army Corps of Engineers been put in charge of the project, the Canal, much like the Tidal Basin,might have been better designed and therefore a greater success. However, the Washington Canal Company apparently didn't have anyone working for them who knew the first thing about the ideal design of an urban canal. First, it was only 3 feet deep, not nearly enough for ships to come through and take on enough water to dip underneath the bridges that were built over the canal on 12th and 14th street, which had in another failure of foresight had not been built as drawbriges. Second, they failed to account for the tides of the Potomac. When the tides were low it put the depth of the canal at below two feet at the middle, and when high flooded over the tops and sent boats foundering on the edges.

Painting of Washington Monument under construction

with Washington City Canal in foreground.

Due to it's inutility, and the government's refusal to provide sufficient funds to properly maintain it, the canal turned into a silted, scummy dumping ground for the city's refuse. Murder Bay, as dangerous Shantytown bordered by the canal to the south between 15th St and 7th Street NW, probably used the canal for dumping bodies. In any case, the waterway that was intended to be a thing of beauty instead became a grotesque and stinking eyesore.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Andrew "Boss" Shepherd as head of the Board of Public Works. Shepherd undertook several projects that greatly improved the infrastructure for the growing city, including an extensive sewer system and a plan for removing the blight of the Washington City Canal. He set about deepening it, then made it half as narrow. Finally, he paved over it and connected it to the overall sewer system. The street that was established running the length of the old canal became an expanded B Street, and in 1931 would be renamed "Constitution Avenue." While necessary for the overall health and livability of the city, his projects ran far over budget. Shepherd was later suspected of corruption and running the government millions into debt. He eventually fled the city and was hiding out in Mexico until the day he died, September 12, 1902. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

In any case, the Washington City Canal still runs, but is now buried under many tons of concrete, a distant memory. The constant push and pull between the city of Washington, DC and Congress over its budget has been a longstanding source of tension. Who knows what the downtown area would look like if the Canal had remained successful? The legacy of the Washington City Canal is much like the city's history of poor development choices and corruption, something that ends up just getting paved over and forgotten. Best to stay Off the Mall, and move to higher ground into the neighborhoods. ;)

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This Library of Congress Civil War era photo is one of my favorite images of the Washington Canal.

Given the photo below happened after the canal was paved over, this might better represent the canal within your excellent timeline. The creation of the Board of Public Works coincided with the DC Organic Act of 1871 which consolidated D.C. under one (appointed) local government, revoking separate charters for the 'City of Washington' and 'Georgetown.' Boss Sheppard was appointed DC's second governor by 1873. The debt he created in both jobs on otherwise beneficial projects, caused this short lived governing structure to be replaced by a three person commission. Congress declared the District bankrupt and the Senate would not confirm Shepard…

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The image labeled ‘Painting of Washington Monument Under Construction…’ is actually photograph available here

One of five photos described together as a panorama taken in the late 1870s by Francis Hacker. Though accounts vary as to how long it took to fully cover the canal, the 1877-1879 range on this photo would have given 6-8 years for such work. The canal which would be running parallel to the right edge appears here to be replaced by a long paved strip with young trees planted all the way to 17th Street at the Lockeeper’s house. 12th Street NW is seen in the foreground but isn’t easily recognized today as that section moved into a tunnel under the mall in 1964.

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