The Location: A Long-Forgotten "river Of Slime" Under Washington (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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The Location: A Long-Forgotten 'Tunnel of Slime' Under Washington

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week, the week before that quadrennial anomaly, Leap Day, we're talking about rarities. So far on the show, we've listened to a disappearing language. We've zipped around on a new-fangled bike and now we're going to head to an unexpected building on our monthly series, "The Location."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:31
Where Kim Bender, author of the blog, "The Location," gives us the inside scoop on D.C.'s lesser known locations or in this case, lesser noticed locations.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:42
Can't believe I've never noticed this place. Constantly walking by this area here at Constitution and 17th, constantly, I've never noticed it.

MS. KIM BENDER

00:00:50
I just like to stand here and think that we would've, like, had river views right now. Like, looking to the south, we would've been right on the Potomac.

SHEIR

00:00:58
This is Kim Bender. She and I are, yes, on the corner of Constitution and 17th in Northwest D.C. So not too far from the World War II Memorial and the jumble of construction the National Park Service is doing for its levy project. All of which, were this the early 1800s, would be covered with water because once upon a time, the Potomac River extended nearly all the way to where the Washington Monument stands today.

BENDER

00:01:21
Because once upon a time, Washington D.C. had a lot more water in it than what we know the city to look like now.

SHEIR

00:01:30
Indeed, not only did the Potomac's banks use to extend even farther, but Constitution Avenue where we are...

BENDER

00:01:36
Used to be a body of water.

SHEIR

00:01:37
Wait, say that again.

BENDER

00:01:39
Constitution Avenue used to be a body of water.

SHEIR

00:01:41
It was called the Washington City Canal and it was built in the early 1800s to connect the Anacostia River...

BENDER

00:01:47
Which is then known as the Eastern Branch.

SHEIR

00:01:49
...with the Potomac.

BENDER

00:01:51
Because Anacostia, you know, you kind of have access to Maryland and then through the Potomac you had access to the West.

SHEIR

00:01:58
Plus, by the 1830s, the Washington City Canal connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or C and O, that visionary waterway that many believed would eventually provide access all the way to Pittsburgh and that, says Kim Bender,, brings us to often overlooked location on Constitution and 17th. The 30 foot wide, 18 foot deep Lock Keeper's House, a one and a half story stone cottage erected in 1833 when the C and O Brand extension was completed.

BENDER

00:02:26
Because they needed a lockkeeper to take the tolls between the two canal systems and to keep records of the commerce. By the 1850s though nobody was really using these canals anymore sadly after all that work because of the railroads and that was really the technology of the future and actually the Washington City Canal was never that great to begin with. It was beset by problems from the start.

SHEIR

00:02:51
Such as?

BENDER

00:02:52
It was too shallow and it didn't take into consideration the tides that happened in the Eastern Branch, the Anacostia River. So sometimes the water would overflow the banks and sometimes the water would be way too shallow like impossibly shallow. So, you know, I guess it wasn't doing that well to begin with but then the railroad totally put it out of business.

SHEIR

00:03:16
And in the meantime, the city's residents didn't use it at all?

BENDER

00:03:19
Actually, they started using it as their sewer and it became the city, like, an open sewer in the city. It was disgusting. By the 1870s, it was a terrible public health problem and then enter Boss Shepherd this character. He took a lot of power, he created this territorial government and became the leader of the territorial government, but he is responsible for a lot of the public improvements in the city.

BENDER

00:03:47
Paving the roads, adding street lights, planted, I think it was, 60,000 trees and he also made it his business to do something about the Washington City Canal, which is now this disgusting, smelly thing. And he used an engineer, a German immigrant named Adolf Cluss and Mr. Cluss put the canal underground. He built a giant tunnel and diverted the water right into this tunnel. Then they filled in the Washington City Canal and named it B Street. Now it's known as Constitution Avenue, but for a while, it was B Street and that would've been it's letter on L'Enfant's plan. And so now we have this, I like to say, it's a tunnel of slime underneath the city.

SHEIR

00:04:34
If we could go down to the tunnel, which I don't believe we can, we tried, dear listeners, we tried getting permission, but roughly how large is that tunnel?

BENDER

00:04:41
I've seen different reports saying that it could be the size of a bus. A bus could drive through this tunnel.

SHEIR

00:04:47
So this house is pretty much the last visible indicator of this Washington City Canal?

BENDER

00:04:53
Yes, it is. And it's today owned by the National Park Service, who used it for a while as a comfort station and now use it as storage.

SHEIR

00:05:03
What do we know about the lockkeeper, this guy who lived here? Did he have a family? Was he just a dude living in this house by this canal?

BENDER

00:05:11
I've saw on some accounts that the lockkeeper had 13 children who lived in this house. I'm not sure how true that is or not, but that's what I've read and I read an oral history account from a man named Otho Swain. He was interviewed in 1976 and he was born in 1901 on a canal boat. His father worked on the canal. His grandfather helped build the C and O canal and his grandfather in his steering of the boat down Constitution Avenue actually met his wife, the lockkeeper's daughter, who lived in this house. So I thought that was really a cool story.

SHEIR

00:05:55
Well, Kim Bender, thank you so much for, once again, helping us dig into, yes, I went there, dig into another rare piece of D.C. history.

BENDER

00:06:04
Well, thanks for meeting me here and standing with me at our water view at the lockkeeper's house.

SHEIR

00:06:11
Kim Bender writes the blog "The Location." To see Kim's article on the Lockkeeper's House and to see photos of that little stone cottage atop that river of slime, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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