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Then and Now: Columbia Road @ Sherman Avenue

The historic image below dates to January 5, 1921, and shows the aftermath of a motor collision at Columbia Road and Sherman Avenue.

(Columbia Road at Sherman Avenue in 1921 and today)

The crash involved Battalion Fire Chief Timothy J. Donohue, who was injured, receiving a cracked jaw, several broken ribs and lacerations on his face, head and body. Donohue was 63 years of age at the time. He rallied and recovered from his injuries.

Donohue officially became Battalion Chief in 1916 after 32 years of service. By November 1, 1921, he had retired from fire duty.

Additional images below:

Historic images from Library of Congress

Kent Boese posts items of historic interest primarily within the District. He's worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He's been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and is the force behind the blog Park View, D.C.


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Interesting that that stretch has always had narrow sidewalks with no trees; I figured that was the result of a road expansion, but apparently not.

As always, a very cool feature!

by Fritz on Aug 20, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport

I love the bike in the first shot. Wonder if people screamed at him to get out of the road on his way from wherever he was riding.

by E-Rich on Aug 20, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

It's almost eerie how little has changed between the two pictures.

by andrew on Aug 20, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

Anyone know what material the roads were paved with back then? Was modern-day asphalt in widespread use by 1921? In the closeup photo it actually looks like dirt.

The sidewalk (in the last photo) looks like it might be concrete. Think they used marble for curbs like parts of DC do today?

by Nigel Tufnel on Aug 20, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

This is one of my favorite Then & Now posts yet! It's all so similar... even the fire hydrant is almost the same -- I can't quite tell for sure if it's the same spot or if it's been realigned slightly & the camera's view is just throwing it off a bit.

It'd be entertaining to put a bike on the corner for effect... and I guess also smash up a car for the full effect.

If there's any info- what caused the crash, anyway? If I'm viewing the images correctly, it looks like the fire engine broadsided the car, with the fire engine getting deflected rightward into the buildings & the car more-or-less still in place?

It's definitely not dirt -- it's clearly a pretty solid material, hence if it were dirt it'd have to be very well-packed. If it's packed that tightly you'd see trails forming near the inlets from water eroding during each storm.

Asphalt has been used in various forms since toward the end of the 19th century, with DC being among its pioneering users in the USA. Hence, I'd wager it's probably asphalt... but likely a somewhat different (but still very similar) mixture than what's often used today.

Its aggregate may not be as strongly bonded as a lot of mixes use these days, hence it may be a paved surface albeit with some loose gravel scattered about; kind of like the road after a winter storm. Or it could just be that the street hadn't been cleaned in awhile, hence lots of litter & small pebbles have accumulated very much as they do today.

by Bossi on Aug 20, 2010 4:12 pm • linkreport

The brick (unpainted) houses sure look nicer in the first picture .... There's more of a continuous look ... not disjointed like in the second. Also, you really have to appreciate not have the big ugly white bars indicating the cross walk and all those poles with signs on them like in the modern picture. You have to wonder what really gets accomplished by adding more and more signage ... Like David C proved for me yesterday 'who cares' ... The bad apples are still going to do what they want to do. I remember when all cross walks were just the smaller lines ... one on each side of the 'path' .. Now we have those big bars crossing the entire path ... What next, neon colored paints in the cross walk? The human eye and ear is very good at tuning out (or in) anything it wants to ... 'increasing the volume' achieves little in the end. It's best just to target the 'bad apples', like David C., who don't care what the signs say. Making the signs more obvious won't achieve much ... and it comes at the price of visual clutter. Go drive north on 15th St NW from Mass Ave. to U Street to see what I mean. Anytime I am there I can't be help but feel so sorry for the folks who live on that street. They may as well be living in the middle of an Interstate. Actually, the Interstate might actually have less visual litter in it ... and at least all the signs are a calming green ....

by Lance on Aug 20, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

Looks like the cop arrived on bike.

by shy on Aug 21, 2010 2:37 pm • linkreport

I agree with Lance -- today's street furniture is far more intrusive and less elegant. The lamps and signals seems to dwarf the surrounding buildings. I see some shorter neotraditional street lamps in the back of the new photo -- why can't we get more of those?

by Lewis McCrary on Aug 21, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Is it just me, or is the hill on Sherman less steep, or missing, today?

by dcseain on Aug 21, 2010 4:39 pm • linkreport


I believe it's just a trick of perspective combined with the tree shrouding the crest of the hill.

by Bossi on Aug 21, 2010 4:49 pm • linkreport

The road surface might be macadam with a tar top.

Asphalt has been used since the 1920s or so, though, so it's also possible this road was an early example.

by Joey on Aug 21, 2010 5:18 pm • linkreport

@Nigel Tufnel and Bossi:
Most of the wearing surfaces in DC back then were asphalt, this one look like one of them. However the asphalt used back then was not refined from petroleum as it is today. It was take from tar pits and mixed with sand. Some of the tar pit asphalt put down during the first half of the last century lasted well in to the 1970s.

by Sand Box John on Aug 22, 2010 1:00 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know what the dark colored box in the back window of the house in the third picture is? Is it some kind of icebox that was used during winter months?

by Aaron Severn on Aug 27, 2010 9:59 pm • linkreport

For once I agree with Lance. Our streets looked much nicer before we cluttered them up with signs and pavement markings. There have been studies of how this signage clutter reduces safety, and how going to an unregulated street space improves safety by creating uncertainty.

by Matthias on Aug 31, 2010 10:17 am • linkreport

Good point, Matthias. Last summer, when i was in Oregon, i noticed that there were few signs. I found i drove slower than i do here, and when a sign, say a curve ahead one, appeared, i paid attention and slowed down, unlike here, where i may take my foot of the gas enough to maintain control through the curve. Of course, here i know what that sign will mean per class of road in each state, unlike there.

The experience there made me realize that i've gotten to the point that i ignore most signage, as there is too much to try to parse while driving, so unless i need information, it just doesn't exist to me. I doubt i'm terribly unusual in this tendency to mostly not pay attention to most sign.

by dcseain on Aug 31, 2010 10:54 am • linkreport

I was born and lived on that block in 1940. During the 40s that store on the corner was a DGS store run by Mr. Jaffe. He was a nice man.

by jeanne on Jan 30, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

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