{ subscribe_url:'//loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/geography-and-maps.php', }

Canals of Washington, DC

Washington, D.C., was established as the “permanent seat of the Federal Government” by the passage of the Residence Act in 1790. This act allowed President George Washington to select the site for the new city anywhere along the banks of the Potomac River between its junction with the Shenandoah River, near present day Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and its junction with the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River, just below the current location of Washington, DC.

The area demarcated for the new city was a blank slate and President Washington selected Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to create a design for it. The map below, published in 1794, reflects L’Enfant’s vision for the new city with a few improvements attributed to Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820).

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading along from the Potomac River, down the format location of Tiber Creek, to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading from the Potomac River, down the former location of Tiber Creek (see below), to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

The detail below shows the Potomac River, the mouth of Tiber Creek, and the United States Mall as laid out by L’Enfant and Ellicott. Running along the  Mall, as we know it today, was a creek that led westward from roughly the current site of Union Station to the Tidal Basin and, ultimately, to the Potomac River. What many Washingtonians may not realize is that both L’Enfant’s original design, and Ellicott’s improvement incorporated canals to facilitate the shipment of goods and construction materials to build the new city.

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L'Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791]. Geography and Map Division.Map

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L’Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791] Geography and Map Division.

In addition to the canal running past the White House, there were grand plans for a university on the west end of the Mall and a turning basin for the canal at the base of Capitol Hill. The proposed University resembles the original campus of the University of Virginia!

 District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

 

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup't of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup’t of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division. In addition to the Washington Canal, the topography of Capitol Hill, also known as Jenkins Hill, can be seen running from north to south through the center of the map.

So why the canal?  It was simply a time saving measure.  The sandstone blocks that were used in Read more »

When Pride Mattered

The small sun baked village of Kodok receives little attention these days.  Lying on the west bank of the Upper Nile River in the world’s newest state, South Sudan, its population has swelled within the last few years due to an increase in refugees fleeing genocide and poverty in Sudan.  Save for a few dusty […]

Cartography of Contagion

Originally published in 1874, these maps of the eastern half of the United States were designed to show the distribution of diseases including typhoid, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and rheumatism that affected the US population. The maps were published by L.H. Carney, M.D., but we find no biographical data on the author.  Medical data (in the […]

Going to the Moon: Early Cartography of the Lunar Surface

The lunar maps shown in this post were created long before satellite images became available. The topography is highly detailed and the historical backgrounds of the astronomers who created them are compelling. The first working telescope was built in the Netherlands in 1608. British astronomer Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) made the first recorded sketches of the […]

Digging up the Truth: Studying Ancient West Mexican House Models

This is a guest post by Bianca Poma, a 2020 Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities Archaeological Research Fellow at the Library of Congress. Bianca is an Anthropology major at the University of Florida and is working with the rare West Mexican House Models that are part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the […]