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

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The Lockkeeper’s House on 17th and Constitution NW was erected in 1833, when D.C. connected the Washington City Canal (now Constitution Avenue) to the C&O Canal.
Kim Bender
The Lockkeeper’s House on 17th and Constitution NW was erected in 1833, when D.C. connected the Washington City Canal (now Constitution Avenue) to the C&O Canal.

Back in the early 1800s, had one wandered around the area that is now 17th Street and Constitution Avenue in Northwest D.C., he or she would have had a direct waterfront view of the Potomac River. That's because the Potomac used to extend nearly all the way to where the Washington Monument stands today.

"Because once upon a time," says Kim Bender, author of the blog, The Location, Washington D.C., had a lot more water in it than what we know the city to look like now."

Indeed, not only did the Potomac's banks use to extend even farther, but also Constitution Avenue used to be a body of water. It was called the Washington City Canal and it was built in the early 1800s to connect the Anacostia River, then known as the Eastern Branch, with the Potomac.

"Because [with the] Anacostia, you kind of have access to Maryland," Bender says. "And then through the Potomac you had access to the West."

Plus, by the 1830s, the Washington City Canal connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, that visionary waterway that many believed would eventually provide access all the way to Pittsburgh.

And that, says Bender, brings us to the overlooked location on Constitution and 17th. It's the 30-foot-wide, 18-foot-deep Lockkeeper's House: a one-and-a-half-story stone cottage erected in 1833 when the C&O Brand extension was completed.

Changes to the Potomac and C&O Canal

As Bender explains, "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 because of the railroads. That was really the technology of the future."

And the truth is, Bender says, "the Washington City Canal was never that great to begin with. It was beset by problems from the start."

For one, it was too shallow. Also, the engineers who built it didn't take into consideration the tides of the Eastern Branch, or the Anacostia River.

"Sometimes the water would overflow the banks, and sometimes the water would be impossibly shallow," Bender says. "So it wasn't doing that well to begin with, but then the railroad totally put it out of business."

In the meantime, the city's residents had begun using the Canal... as a sewer.

"It was disgusting," Bender says. "By the 1870s, it was a terrible public health problem and then enter Boss Shepherd, [who] created this territorial government and became the leader of the territorial government."

Shepherd was responsible many public improvements to the city, from paving roads and adding streetlights to planting trees around town.

"He also made it his business to do something about the Washington City Canal, which is now this disgusting, smelly thing," Bender says. "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 its letter on L'Enfant's plan."

History of the Lockkeeper and his house

So now we have what Bender likes to call "a tunnel of slime" beneath the city. According to some reports, the tunnel is large enough to drive a bus through. And now, the Lockkeeper's House is the last visible indicator of the Washington City Canal. The National Park Service owns the house, and uses it for storage.

As for the lockkeeper himself, Bender says some accounts report he had 13 children who lived in the house. She also found a 1976 interview with a man named Otho Swain. He was born in 1901 on a canal boat. His father worked on the canal, and his grandfather helped build the C&O. Swain says his grandfather "actually met his wife, the lockkeeper's daughter, who lived in this house."

So perhaps this modern-day "tunnel of slime" could also be called a Tunnel of Love.


[Music: "Turn Your Face" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Tunnel of Love" by Bruce Springsteen from Top 1000 Classic Rock]

Photos: The Lockkeeper's House

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