The City Of Washington
( Originally Published 1900 )
The most famous of all these cities of the Chesapeake region is Washington, upon the Potomac, and we will therefore begin this story at the American National Capital. The striking thing about Washington is that, unlike other capitals of great nations, it was created for the sole purpose of a seat of government, apart from any question of commercial rank or population. It has neither manufactures nor commerce to speak of. After the adoption of the Federal Constitution there was a protracted conflict in Congress over the claims of rival localities for the seat of government, and this developed so much jealousy that it almost disrupted the Union at its inception. General Washington, then the President, used his strong influence and wise judgment to compromise the dispute, and it was finally decided that Philadelphia should remain the capital for ten years, while after the year 1800 it should be located on the Potomac River, on a site selected by Washington, within a district of one hundred square miles, ceded by Maryland and Virginia, and which, to avoid any question of sovereignty or control, should be under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. The location was at the time nearly in the geographical centre of the then thirteen original States. As the city was designed entirely on the Maryland side of the Potomac, the Virginia portion of the " Federal District of Columbia," as it was called, was retroceded in 1826, so that the District now contains about sixty-five square miles. The capital was originally called the "Federal City," but this was changed by law in 1791 to the "City of Washington." The ground plan of the place was ambitious, and laid out upon an extensive undulating plateau bordered by rolling hills to the northward and westward, and sloping gently towards the Potomac River, between the main stream and the eastern branch, or Anacostia River. This plan has been well described as "a wheel laid upon a gridiron," the rectangular arrangement of the ordinary streets having superimposed upon it a system of broad radiating avenues, with the Capitol on its hill, ninety feet high, for the centre. The Indians called the place Conococheague, or the " roaring water," from a rapid brook running through it, which washed the base of the Capitol Hill, and was afterwards very properly named the Tiber, but has since degenerated into a sewer. A distinguished French engineer of the time, Major L'Enfant, prepared the topographical plan of the city, under the direction of Washington and Jefferson, who was Secretary of State ; and Andrew Ellicott, a prominent local surveyor, laid it out upon the ground. The basis of the design was the topography of Versailles, but with large modifications ; and thus was laid out the Capital of the United States, which a writer in the London Times, some years ago, called " the city of Philadelphia griddled across the city of Versailles."
The original designers planned a city five miles long and three miles broad, and confidently expected that a vast metropolis would soon be created, though in practice only a comparatively limited portion was built upon, and this is not where they intended the chief part of the new city to be. Of late years, however, the newer portions have been rapidly ex-tending. No man's name was used for any of the streets or avenues, as this might cause jealousy, so the streets were numbered or lettered and the avenues named after the States. The corner-stone of the Capitol was laid in 1793, its front facing east upon the elevated plateau of the hill, and the town was to have been mainly built upon this plateau in front of it. Behind the Capitol, on its western side, the brow of the hill descended rather sharply, and here they laid out a wide and open Mall, westward over the lower ground to the bank of the Potomac River, more than a mile away. Off towards the northwest, at the end of one of the diagonal avenues, they placed the Executive Mansion, with its extensive park and gardens stretching southward to the river, and almost joining the Mall there at a right angle. The design was to have the city in an elevated and salubrious location, with the President secluded in a comfortable retreat amid ample grounds, but nearly a mile and a half distant in the rural region. But few plans eventuate as expected; and such is the perversity of human nature that the people, when they came to the new settlement, would not build the town on Capitol Hill as had been intended, but persisted in settling upon the lower ground along and adjacent to the broad avenue leading from the Capitol to the Executive Mansion; and there, and for a long distance beyond the latter to the northward and westward, is the city of Washing-ton of to-day. Pennsylvania Avenue, one hundred and sixty feet wide, joining these two widely-separated Government establishments and extending far to the northwest, thus became the chief street of the modern city. To Washington the Federal Government was removed, as directed by law, in 1800, the actual removal being conducted by Tobias Lear, who had been President Washington's private secretary, and was then serving in similar capacity for President John Adams. He packed the whole archives and belongings of the then United States Government at Philadelphia in twenty-eight wooden boxes, loaded them on a sloop, sailed down the Delaware, around to the Chesapeake, and up the Potomac to the new capital, and took possession. The original Capitol and Executive Mansion were burnt by the British during their invasion in 1814, when Washington had about ten thousand population; it now contains over three hundred thousand, of whom fifty thousand are army and navy officers and civil servants and their families, and about eighty thousand are colored people.