The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


A river of slime runs under Constitution Avenue

How is Washington, DC like this scene from Ghostbusters 2?

Like the fictionalized residents of New York City in 1989, most present-day Washingtonians are unaware that an unusual river of slime runs beneath their city. (But ours is not paranormal). Here's the story.

Constitution Avenue was once a river

Back when DC was born, water was integral to the development of commerce. Roads were unreliable, and other technologies didn't yet exist. Why else would the city's founders have placed it at the intersection of two swampy, humid, mosquito-filled waterways, the Potomac and the Eastern Branch (now called the Anacostia)?

In fact, Pierre L'Enfant's original 1792 plan for DC shows us that their city was far more watery than the one we know today. If the Washington Monument had been built then, it would have sat on the shores of the Potomac, and the Lincoln Memorial would be underwater. From the foot of Capitol Hill out to the Potomac, there ran a body of water called Tiber Creek (whose name had been changed from Goose Creek when it was decided that DC would become America's capital, because they were emulating Rome).

L'Enfant Plan. Image from Wikipedia.

DC's founders and business leaders believed that the city's economic development would be vastly enhanced if only there was a canal connecting the Anacostia River (navigable to Maryland) to the Potomac (the gateway to the west) through the city. The Washington City Canal, completed in 1815, flowed up north from the Anacostia, passed west of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and then headed due west along the Tiber River whose path is today's Constitution Ave. In other words, Constitution Avenue was once a river.

The Tiber Creek/Washington City Canal is visible to the north. Photo by

Ever wonder what that random tiny stone house is on the Mall?

In 1828, construction began on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, another dream waterway which would connect commerce up to Pittsburgh and through all areas in between. In the original plans, the C&O system was supposed to end in Georgetown, but that idea made DC leaders nervous. They imagined that the canal would help Georgetown outshine the capital, so they ransomed their $1M investment in the project and had that changed. The C&O would now end at the Washington City Canal.

Thus completed in 1833 and known as the C&O Branch Extension, DC's canal connection into the C&O began at the Rock Creek Basin and followed 27th Street down until it connected into the Washington City Canal at 17th and Constitution Avenues.

Image from the National Park Service.
Someone was going to have to collect the tolls and keep the records, so a Lockkeeper's House was built at 17th and Constitution. Owned today by the National Park Service, the Lockkeeper's House is one of the last reminders that a canal ever flowed through DC.

A small federal style house built of fieldstone and measuring 30 feet wide and 18 feet deep, the Lockkeeper's House originally sat 40 feet west and 10 feet north of its current location, but was moved in the 1930′s to widen 17th Street.

According to some reports, the lockkeeper and his 13 children lived in the building. Otho Swain, a man born on a canal boat in 1901, whose father was a boatman and locktender and whose grandfather helped build the C&O, related this story:

My grandfather, he had boated coal down Constitution Avenue. There used to be a canal that crossed the Potomac there, and there's a little stone house still standing on the corner of 17th and Constitution Avenue. It was a lock house. My grandmother lived in that lock house, and that's where my grandfather met her.

The Lockkeeper's House was given to the National Park Service at the beginning of the 20th century during the construction of Potomac Park. For a time it was used as a "public comfort station", but today NPS uses it as storage.

Decline to slime

Although DC's founders believed that waterways would bring commerce, we know better today—railroads were the technology of the future. As the rail was developed, the canal system fell into disuse. (Plus, the Washington City Canal had always been a bit of a mess. The water was shallow and so could only handle boats drawing less than 3 feet of water.)

The canal system was completely abandoned by the end of the 1850′s. The C&O Canal only made it as far as Cumberland, MD before it went under. What did DC's residents do with this body of water running through its middle? Throughout the Civil War and after, they turned the Washington City Canal into an open sewer.

Drawing of the sewer in 1894 from via the Affordable Housing Institute.

Luckily, when Boss Shepard came into power in the 1870′s, he added this smelly problem to his list of public improvements. A young German immigrant engineer, Adolph Cluss, was enlisted to move the body of water underground. He apparently built a tunnel from Capitol Hill down to the Potomac that is "wide enough for a bus to drive through to put Tiber Creek underground."

A river runs under it

Filling in the canal created B Street, which was subsequently renamed Constitution Avenue. Although the massive undertaking solved public health problems, the federal government apparently did not contemplate the potential engineering dilemmas that might result from building on top of an underground creek/sewer From Wikipedia:

Many of the buildings on the north side of Constitution apparently are built on top of the creek, including the Internal Revenue Service Building, part of which is built on wooden piers sunk into the wet ground along the creek course. The low-lying topography there contributed to the flooding of the National Archives Building (Archives I in Washington, DC), IRS, and Ariel Rios buildings that forced their temporary closure beginning in late June 2006.

In fact, until the mid 1990s, that part of Washington around the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution was an open parking lot because the underground water was too difficult to deal with. During construction of the Ronald Reagan Building (1990—98), the engineers figured out how to divert the water. But that dewatering then reduced the water level underneath the IRS building which caused the wooden piers to lose stability and part of the IRS building foundation to sink.

More information is in a Northwest Current article from 1997 about reports to the National Capital Planning Commission on the flooding issues, and this photo from BMS CAT shows flooding at the National Archives.

Maybe DC doesn't have real ghosts flowing under our feet, but that doesn't mean we aren't haunted by underground things from the city's past.

Cross-posted at The Location.

Kimberly Bender works as the Director of Operations and Legal Counsel for the Heurich House Museum (also known as "The Brewmaster's Castle"). She writes the blog The Location about the hidden history of DC's places, people, and culture. 


Add a comment »

I recently read one of the temporary construction signs NPS put up on the fences around the levy site by the tollkeeper's house.

Interesting thing I found out: there was a wharf right next to the house that extended 17th street south past Constitution into the river. For at least a few years, it was one of the main cargo wharfs for Washington. NPS thinks some evidence of the wharf might remain under 17th street south of Constitution.

by Tim on Feb 28, 2012 3:58 pm • linkreport

With global warming, we may see water flowing down Constitution Avenue again someday.

by Crickey7 on Feb 28, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

Now, if only we had the ruins of a pneumatic transit system under our streets...

by Alex B. on Feb 28, 2012 5:07 pm • linkreport

Add another photo to the mix that shows the stone house and what was probably the canal/creek. I can't remember which LoC collection I downloaded it from, so I've just uploaded it:

There are actually two pictures there, one is the old shot (date?) and the other is contemporary, same view.

by Bilsko on Feb 28, 2012 8:24 pm • linkreport

1. Adolph Cluss was much more that "a young German immigrant engineer." It was weird to read that in an article about DC history.

2. If you are ever out on the Potomac, you can see a remnant of the canal. There is a scupper built in to the sea wall along Rock Creek Parkway over by the volleyball courts. Basically this is the end drain for any water/slime that is in the canal.

by RJK on Feb 28, 2012 11:44 pm • linkreport

Can this waterway be recovered? They did so with the Los Angeles River. The Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea was once reduced to a sewer capped by a six-lane highway -- it has since been recovered and is a major attraction.

by Steve on Feb 29, 2012 7:12 am • linkreport

Whadya mean, no real ghosts! DC has plenty of them!

by Tim Krepp on Feb 29, 2012 8:04 am • linkreport

I'm with Steve. Constitution Avenue isn't an important roadway. The canal system should be brought back to DC and waterways should be returned to their early 1800 routes.

by selxic on Feb 29, 2012 8:08 am • linkreport

Count me as an admirer of Adolph Cluss. He was associated to most of the successful projects of that era -- and most of them are still here.

by goldfish on Feb 29, 2012 8:13 am • linkreport

@AlexB; steam tunnels, my friend. Steam tunnels.

by charlie on Feb 29, 2012 9:09 am • linkreport

So the construction of the Ronald Reagan building undermined the foundation of the IRS?

Clearly the man was a master of the long game ...

by Brian D on Feb 29, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

So the upshot is, DC wasn't built on a swamp, rather it was built on a marsh.

by tom veil on Feb 29, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

RJK and goldfish: Thanks for correcting my (embarrassing) oversight of Adolph Cluss!

A good summary of his life and work is here:

by The Location on Feb 29, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

"(But ours is not paranormal)"

I dunno, have you *seen* how Congress operates lately?

by Kolohe on Feb 29, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

It's nice to see some publicity for the old canal, but it never did much good for the city. Even before it was an open sewer it basically served only to cut SW off. Below Capitol Hill—i.e., all along Constitution Ave.—the Tiber wasn't a creek so much as an inlet of the Potomac. Prior to its channelization it was significantly wider than Constitution and its buildings. Once it was channelized there weren't many bridges, either.

Also, the hydrology of the Mall that underlay the 2006 flooding is rather more complex than one buried canal.

by drbubbles on Mar 1, 2012 9:47 am • linkreport

Washington's canals provide a lesson in long-term planning.

Groundbreaking for the C&O canal was on July 4, 1828, and the canal appeared to be a can't miss business venture. The Erie Canal had opened New York State to the great lakes, and canals were the preferred method of transportation between waterways. The C&O would connnect DC to the mighty Ohio and the west. The commemorative marker from that groundbreaking still stands and is clearly legible in Georgetwon.

Less than three years later, the first railroad in the U-S began operation, and the B&O began in 1835. Meanwhile, the arduous work on the C&O canal continued. It took six years to build the Paw Paw Tunnel.

The Canal was completed only as far as Cumberland, and was seldom profitable. It ceased commercial operations in 1924. Thanks to William O. Douglas and dedicated groups of conservationists and preservationists, it exists as a unique and beloved National Park.

But this commercial venture - which seemed to be so clearly needed at the time and could not possibly fail - was overtaken by a new technology and was outmoded before it could be completed.

by Mike Silverstein on Mar 3, 2012 10:12 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

We are switching over to our new website. Commenting on the old site is now disabled. Thank you for your patience and pardon our dust!

Support Us