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Rediscovering Swampoodle

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Swampoodle tour guide Kathleen Lane's family lived at 515 H Street for more than 100 years. A family portrait, from 1896, shows her Great-Grandfather and the rest of the family living in the house.
Katherine Lane
Swampoodle tour guide Kathleen Lane's family lived at 515 H Street for more than 100 years. A family portrait, from 1896, shows her Great-Grandfather and the rest of the family living in the house.

Cultural Tourism DC is offering a new walking tour of the racy, raucous neighborhood of Swampoodle. If you haven't heard of it, that might be because it was destroyed more than a century ago.

The tour starts at Union Station in 1907, when it was the largest train terminal in the world. Kathleen Lane, volunteer tour guide for Cultural Tourism DC and Swampoodle aficianado, explains that the area wasn't always a transportation hub.

"Before Union Station was here, there was a community of Irish immigrants called Swampoodle," says Lane, who will give the tour periodically, including this Saturday, Sept. 24.

D.C. was never an immigrant magnet like New York or Philadelphia, Lane says, but when the Irish fled their country during the famine of the 1840s and 50s, the U.S. Government was in the midst of a hiring spree. Immigrants who ventured further down the coast went right to work building the Capitol, the Post Office and many other structures that make up the National Mall. And because they wanted to live as close to work as possible, they patched together homes and stores near the capitol. 

"It was considered at the time to be a very down at the heels slum," says Lane. "Complete with goats and peoples' laundry hanging over the wash. And it was really considered kind of shameful so close to the Capitol building."

Accordng to Lane, Swampoodle gets its name from the Tiber Creek that overflowed its banks during the rainy season. The tidewater made the area swampy and ridden with puddles. The Irish residents who lived there conjoined those two words, with their Irish accents, to ‘Swampoodle.' 

At the site of what is now an elementary school at 4th and F Streets NE stood Junamans brewery, a large complex that had a brewery, a dance hall, a bowling alley. Lane says the proliferation of drinking establishments in the area was only partially about the alcohol. "Pubs were kind of living rooms for the community to come together," she says.

And when people weren’t getting together in pubs, they were probably in a shop along H Street NE, which was the main corridor of the neighborhood and the hub of transportation. In the early days of Swampoodle, the immigrants tended to have their own institutions, and H Street is where they met and congregated.

At 515 H street, Lane points out a purple rowhouse where her great grandfather was born in 1871. Her family sold the house in the 1950s, and until recently, never came back down to the neighborhood. 

"There was so much crime here," Lane explains. "It was such a bad neighborhood. It's great to be able to come back down to H Street now to go to Bikram yoga class, across the street from my great grandfather's house."

Lane says the ongoing revitalization of the H street corridor is piquing curiosity about the neighborhood’s past. "To remember the layers of history and to keep that fresh, and to keep that part of the meaning and memory is what a community is all about."

Even if that community technically no longer exists.

[Music: "Waves of Gola" by Altan from Another Sky]

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