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Meet me down in Pipetown: DC's neighborhoods in 1877

By now, most Washingtonians have heard of Swampoodle, the historic Irish neighborhood that was destroyed by the construction of Union Station. But what about The Island? Pipetown? Bloody Hill and Bloodfield ("the ancient feudal ground of the southwest")?

These were all names of Washington, DC neighborhoods during the decades of the 1800s following the end of the Civil War.


Map of Washington as the city appeared in 1877 when the Washington Post was founded, with the old nicknames for various portions of the city. Photo from the Washington Post.

Post-war DC was a rough place. According to one government official interviewed in the Post in 1902, "Washington passed through its period of lawlessness and disorder fully as bad, if not worse, than that which prevailed in Cripple Creek, Colo. or Tombstone, Ariz."

Small fields of corn and cabbage gardens were scattered about everywhere, many of them within a stone's throw of the Capitol, while cows had the run of the town from Georgetown to Anacostia Creek, grazing on the pavements, breaking into front yards, disturbing the slumbers of the citizens by their incessant lowing, and making themselves generally obnoxious. I recollect there use to be a brick yard at Ninth and O streets northwest and not far distant was a cornfield inclosed [sic] by a stake and rider fence. ...

The war had ended, leaving stranded in this city a vast horde of enfranchised slaves, discharged soldiers, and a cloud of riffraff, bummers, and camp followers... and their arrival soon made this city one of the most disorderly places in America. Fights, murders, stabbing, and shooting scrapes were of daily occurrence.

The neighborhoods with the most infamous conditions had nicknames that were never shown on any official plat. But the Washington Post put together the amazing map above on its 50th anniversary, to show the neighborhoods that existed when the paper was founded in 1877.

Hell's Bottom, a former "contraband camp" extending irregularly from 7th to 14th Streets NW, and from O Street to the Boundary (now Florida Avenue), was one of the most notorious sections of the city. Living conditions were poor and crime was high.

According to a Post article from 1897, some Hell's Bottom residents lived in shanties the size of a "hall-room," with roofs so low that an average person could only stand upright on one side. These homes, which could house up to 3 families, were of "the rudest possible construction, few having any sashes in the window aperture, a board shutter closing out the cold winds, light and ventilation together, when shut. The only salvation from suffocation lies in the gaping cracks existing round the doors and windows, without which many a family would doubtless be found dead in the morning of cold nights."

Keith Sutherland, an old Hell's Bottom inhabitant, said this about the neighborhood in a 1900 Post article:

"Money was scarce and whisky [sic] was cheapa certain sort of whiskyand the combination resulted in giving the place the name which it held for so many years. The police force was small. There was no police court, and the magistrates before whom offenders were brought rarely fixed the penalty at more than $2. Crime and lawlessness grew terribly, and a man had to fight, whenever he went into the "Bottom."
The police were unable to control the crime and violence in Hell's Bottom, and so in 1891, the city refused to renew any of the neighborhood's liquor licenses. It was this act that finally led to the neighborhood's improvement.

Murder Bay: The area east of the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue was known for its brothels, gambling, and crime. It was sometimes called "Hooker's Department," after Civil War General Joseph Hooker, who hoped to concentrate the city's brothels in the area.


The "red light district" known as Murder Bay at the corner of C Street NW and 13th Street NW, April 1912. Griffin Veatch, a "night messenger" or child laborer who directed customers to brothels, is leaning against the tree at left. Photograph by Lewis W. Hine for the US National Child Labor Committee.

White Chapel: A dirty alley between 24th and 25th Streets, and M and N Streets, NW. During the 1880s, there was almost constant warfare between the residents of this area and the police.

Pipetown: East of 11th Street SE to the Anacostia River, this neighborhood was made famous by Pipetown Sandy (1905), John Philip Sousa's semi-autobiographical young adult novel about the neighborhood where he grew up. One Post article described Pipetown as "a community of extensive commons, of ash dumps, of tumble-down houses and shacks of nondescript architecture, a place where goats browsed among the tomato cans and the travelling fair pitched its weather-beaten tent."

Bloodfield: This neighborhood was "a vague name for the entire region around the James Creek Canal" (in today's SW near the Navy Yard), and one of the most dangerous and notorious slums in the city. Arrest attempts by police (who would only walk their beat in pairs) resulted in injury or worse to the officer or the resident:

Policeman Muller was attracted to the Shears house by the shooting, and when he arrived there he found Shears lying dead on the floor of the kitchen having been shot in the left temple. Curry was covered with blood from head to foot and gave evidence of having had a terrible struggle. His badge was smeared with blood and his coat was saturated with it.

Brothels, illegal speakeasies, and tough characters filled the neighborhood:

A steel corset stay, pointed and sharpened into a dangerous weapon, was used in an affray early yesterday evening...

Sergt. Daley, of the Fourth Precinct, was abroad in Bloodfield with his raiding clothes on last night, and, as a result, a number of alleged disorderly houses were closed up.

As the city and police force grew, the neighborhood calmed, but it retained its name up to the '20s.

Cowtown: A neighborhood located north of Hell's Bottom and west of 7th Street, NW.

The Island: This swath of land south of the Mall was so called because the canal cut it off from the rest of mainland DC.

I'd much rather live in Hell's Bottom than Logan Circle, wouldn't you?

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. 

Comments

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Looks like Blood Field is in SE, not SW. At least according to the map.

by David Garber on Mar 20, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

It's fun how Ward 6 is still essentially in the same place.

There's no Ward 8 labeled on the map, though. Can we assume that all of Washington County was Ward 8? Would make Barry happy to know that encompassed areas west of the river at one point... :)

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 20, 2012 3:39 pm • linkreport

David: The newspaper articles of the time were vague, saying that Bloodfield was located in "South Washington". But articles also described the neighborhood as the area around the James Creek Canal, which started at Buzzard's Point near 2nd Street SW. So, you're correct in that the area probably straddled part of SE and SW, but was more in SE.

by Kim Bender on Mar 20, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

@Geoff

Funny, but not really. The wards only existed within the City of Washington.

by Adam L on Mar 20, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

The more things change...

by jim d. on Mar 20, 2012 4:25 pm • linkreport

Nashville has retained some of its more colorful neighborhood names, like Bucket of Blood. New York kept some of its edge with neighborhoods like Hell's Kitchen, and some of its history with Harlem. Even San Francisco has some of this, with Dogpatch and Western Addition.

These are certainly more organic names than the marketing ones we currently have, like Mount Pleasant, Pleasant Plains, and Congress Heights. It's interesting that Foggy Bottom stuck, but The Division didn't.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 20, 2012 4:51 pm • linkreport

Being the Evening Star is not digitized, for insights into DC immediately after the Civil War The Sun (Baltimore) is a great resource. A "Washington Letter" was published everyday and often reached down into the gutters of Murder Bay.

by John Muller on Mar 20, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Many members of my mother's family lived in "Swampoodle". But I've never seen anyone but historians use that name - the Irish locals just call it "St. Al's".

by Frank IBC on Mar 20, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

Hell's Bottom anticipated Logan Circle's decades long run as a prostitution stroll (as well as its time as a crack supermarket)

by rich on Mar 20, 2012 5:19 pm • linkreport

Lenchmob, Choppa City, 640....

by What set you claim? on Mar 20, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

Actually, Geoff, I'm pretty sure CM Barry would be disappointed that his ward did not get Pipetown, given how apt a location that would be for Monsieur Barry's abode...

by Dizzy on Mar 20, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

Our neighborhood was called "Cuckold's Delight," no joke, and is now part of Brookland.

by NE John on Mar 20, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

Frank IBC, my family oozed out of Swampoodle too. Great grandfather arrived there in 1839. As you probably know, St Al's refers to Saint Aloysius at Gonzaga.

by NE John on Mar 20, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

A great hand-drawn map of "Hooker's Division" - Pres. Cleveland could see the area from his bedroom window: http://bit.ly/GCzDH8

by Kim Bender on Mar 20, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

When I first moved to U St/Shaw, I remembered from my history of DC class that the neighborhood was Hell's Bottom. My neighbors got a kick out of that, and the little ones named themselves the "Hells Bottom crew". Good times.

by HellsBottomCrew on Mar 20, 2012 5:55 pm • linkreport

Interesting that there is a "Vinegar Hill" by Dupont Circle. I feel like I recently read about an area up by Georgia Av and Kennedy St NW that was called "Vinegar Hill South", despite the fact that that area is much further north (up by Brightwood). Anyone know anything about that?

by Dave Murphy on Mar 20, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

Dave Murphy: I also was a little confused by the map's placement of Vinegar Hill, and couldn't find anything in my research to back it up. However, I found this: "Fort Stevens was site of Vinegar Hill, the first Black settlement in Washington, and the adjacent Military Road School, originally established in Union Army barracks to educate freed slaves." Hope that helps a little.

by Kim Bender on Mar 20, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

Interesting map! Do you happen to have a link to a higher definition version of it? There appears to be some landmarks (or maybe subneighborhoods) listed ... but they just get too grainy to read when you blow the map up .. Thanks.

by Lance on Mar 20, 2012 6:12 pm • linkreport

The Tiber Island residential complex at 4th & M SW gets its name from "The Island," which was reconnected to the mainland when the creeks were filled in.

Names like these will sometimes show up today when doing subdivision research or in random places like on Flickr, which apparently uses a pretty old set of digitized base maps. "Poverty Row" was one location that came up when placing a photo in Chicago.

Anyhow, it all goes to show that people need to chill out whenever "you got the neighborhood boundary wrong!!!!!" -- neighborhood names and boundaries shift over time.

by Payton on Mar 20, 2012 6:20 pm • linkreport

NE John - Yes, St. Aloysius Church plus Gonzaga (and Notre Dame). Catholics tended to use the names of the parish rather than the neighborhood.

"Foggy Bottom" was "St. Stephens" to another branch of my mother's family.

by Frank IBC on Mar 20, 2012 8:26 pm • linkreport

Less colorful, but shortly after this map was made, Georgetown changed its name to West Washington in acknowledgement of its merger with Washington City. But the new name didn't take (maybe because there was no longer a need for an official name for the neighborhood) and it was soon referred to as Georgetown again.

by Topher Mathews on Mar 20, 2012 10:27 pm • linkreport

This is a great post. Thanks, GGW. We need more attention on the city's history. I hope the information below is of interest. We need some new blood and interest!

39TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON D.C. HISTORICAL STUDIES
October 18-21, 2012

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

DEADLINE: May 1, 2012

Submit your individual paper and panel proposal(s) now for the D.C.
Historical Studies Conference. The conference also welcomes proposals of:

• producer talks/viewings of new films
• walking tours
• author talks on new books
• practical workshops on research or material preservation.

The D.C. Historical Studies Conference brings together scholars, students,
and interested members of the public for a lively consideration of all
things D.C. All topics related to the history of metropolitan Washington,
D.C., including nearby Maryland and Virginia, as well as the federal
government, are welcome,

Past presentations have considered art, archaeology, architecture,
biography, demography, geography, law, military, music, race relations, as
well as oral history techniques and archival collection reviews. Important
conference themes this year will be on a diverse range of anniversaries:
the sesquicentennial of DC’s Compensated emancipation, 160 years of
African American education in DC, and the centennial of the Japanese
flowering cherry trees. Conference themes are always suggestive not
exclusive and if you have DC history research ready to present, we want to
consider it for inclusion in the conference.

The Friday lunch-hour History Network is a forum where related
organizations and vendors display materials explaining their activities
and services.

For a flavor of past conferences, see the following programs from previous
years visit: http://www.historydc.org/conference/archives.aspx

SUBMISSION INSTRUCTIONS
Individual
Submit an abstract of your paper, including your professional title and
institutional affiliation (if applicable), contact information (email),
and audio-visual/IT equipment needs.

Panel
Submit a brief description of the session with role/topic of each
panelist, professional titles and institutional affiliations (if
applicable), contact information for the panel organizer/primary contact,
and audio-visual/IT equipment needs.

Please email proposals to the conference committee at
dchistoricalstudies@gmail.com

HISTORY NETWORK PARTICIPATION
The History Network marketplace of ideas takes place on Friday, October
19. Reserve your space now by via email - dchistoricalstudies@gmail.com

_____
The 39th Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies is co-sponsored by
the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, the
Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Cultural Tourism DC, Friends of
Washingtoniana Division, H-DC – http://www.h-net.org/~dclist, the
Historical Society of Washington, D.C., Rainbow History Project, and the
Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library.

by DC History 4 LIFE on Mar 21, 2012 12:17 am • linkreport

Bloodfield and Bloody Hill are both in SE according to that map

by Kurt on Mar 21, 2012 12:36 am • linkreport

I have a few maps from the early to mid 20th century that label the lower (southern) part of the Palisades neighborhood as Harlem

by Bilsko on Mar 21, 2012 7:46 am • linkreport

@OctaviusIII -- well, the name Pleasant Plains does predate DC itself (it's been called Pleasant Plains since 1750), and Mount Pleasant was named after Pleasant Plains in the 19th century, so they're not brand new names, either...

by pagodat on Mar 21, 2012 9:36 am • linkreport

Wonderful article. Thank you Kimberly!

by Sage on Mar 21, 2012 10:40 am • linkreport

Wonderful article. Hookers and lobbyists are two of my favorite words that have their origin in our town. Hookers started on 14th Street, at the Army of the Potomac encampment that spread over the mall and Washington Monument ground. General Joseph Hooker - fighting Joe - commanded the Army of the Potomac, and Washington wags referred to the camp followers as Hooker's girls, or Hooker's for short.

140 years later, the Hookers have moved up 14th Street, to 14th and K, 14th and Massachusetts, and nearby areas. That, dear friends, is what we refer to as the march - or stroll - of progress.

As far as the world's second oldest profession, there are differing accounts as to the specific origin of the term, but it is widely believed to been a reference to job-seekers who loitered in the Willard Hotel lobby, hoping to buttonhole federal officials for favors or employment. A popular version of this story says it was President Lincoln who coined the term lobbyist.

by Mike S. on Mar 21, 2012 11:29 am • linkreport

Fascinating stuff.

Thanks for the history lesson.

by ceefer66 on Mar 21, 2012 11:37 pm • linkreport

There is a obit for Captain of Police Daley whose first beat was Hell's Bottom. His main claim to fame was closing the "Palace of Vice" in Hell's Bottom which seems to have been the HQ of one Brooke "Battle" Griffin. Daley also served in Bloodfield.

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1917-07-29/ed-1/seq-3/

This raid/closing was obviously a big deal because the printed a story on the 25th anniversary of the "death" of the "Palace of Vice" was attributed to a Griff Reed.

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1914-07-20/ed-1/seq-2/

by Ellen on Mar 22, 2012 9:17 am • linkreport

I like this article "Favorite spot of crime" about Murder Bay

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024442/1895-12-01/ed-1/seq-20/

by Ellen on Mar 22, 2012 9:25 am • linkreport

Mike S.: I've read that the word Hooker may have also come from Baltimore. Call-girls would hang out on the hook-shaped part of the harbor near Fells Point, where they got the nick-name. Lots of sailors and boat-manufactuering back then in that area to rationalize the claim. I'm not a historian or anything though.

by bort on Mar 22, 2012 6:11 pm • linkreport

mike s, the popular story about lobbyists is about pres. grant. but it's not true anyway. the word comes to us from england.

by werq on Mar 22, 2012 7:21 pm • linkreport

This list of "city" names just appeared when I attempted to place a photo on Flickr:
Washington, Highlands, Harlem, Arlington, Dover, Alexandria, Cowtown, Brinetown, Hamburgh, Westmont, Pipetown, Carrollsburg, Hells Bottom, Douglass Park, Bloodfield, Dobbins Addition, Fairview Heights, Fernwood Heights, Georgetown Heights, Monastery Lot, Morris Addition, Nacocktanke, Nacotchtanke, Potomac City, Pretty Prospect, Tunlaw Heights, Youngsborough, Addison Heights, Arna Valley, Crystal Spring Knolls, Dominion Heights, Radnor Heights

Obviously, a few of these are existing cities or current neighborhood names, some of them are described above, and I recognize a few as towns that were later absorbed into other cities (Carrollsburg was a paper subdivision that became Ft. McNair; Potomac became Del Ray). But others are completely new to me: per hometownlocator.com, Nacocktanke (regardless of spelling) became River Terrace, Youngsborough became Bloomingdale/Eckington, and Pretty Prospect was renamed in Greek to become Kalorama. That site appears to have a list of historical place names, some of which are somewhat evocative (Thomas Circle = Nighthawk Hill).

by Payton on Mar 23, 2012 1:26 am • linkreport

Actually, would not trust the press for accurate geography. If they were anything like some reporters of the 1970's, when something "bad" happened, they often assigned the location to their (often skewed) perception of the "bad" neighborhood - thus all murders and mayhem occurred in Columbia Heights, even when it actually happened west of 16th. Likewise, any positive events east of 16th St were identified as Adams Morgan or Mt. Pleasant.

by ELIZABETH on Jul 31, 2013 10:23 pm • linkreport

hey kimberly, this is a great blog post. it might be helpful to people if you cited the source of the photograph of the map.

by tom buckley on Jan 5, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

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