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Remaking The Image Of A Washingtonian Who Made Over The City

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Washington Walks owner Carolyn Crouch says Alexander Robey Shepherd was a contentious, controversial figure in D.C. history.
Rebecca Sheir
Washington Walks owner Carolyn Crouch says Alexander Robey Shepherd was a contentious, controversial figure in D.C. history.

When it comes to Washington native son Alexander Robey Shepherd, you could say the controversial historical figure was associated with not one makeover, but two.

"In his case, there's the makeover of a physical place, and then later, there's somewhat of a rehabilitation, makeover, of his reputation," says Carolyn Crouch, owner of the walking-tour company Washington Walks.

The first makeover came during Shepherd's tenure as director of the Board of Public Works during Washington's Territorial Government period from 1871 to 1874.

"He was instrumental in allowing the city to flourish after the Civil War," Crouch explains, "as a city that finally had sewage under the ground in nice pipes, water flowing to people's homes. Paved, grated streets. He created a massive tree canopy in Washington, D.C.: 64,000 trees."

But even as Shepherd was rehabilitating Washington, he was also earning a rather shady reputation: one that earned him a particular nickname.

"[The] name that stuck was Boss. Boss Shepherd," Crouch says. "As in Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall in New York City. Because there were allegations of mismanagement of funds, misappropriation of funds, cronyism."

These allegations continued as Shepherd took his next post as territorial governor of the District of Columbia. Though, as Crouch explains, the stint only lasted nine months.

"He was removed from that position, and the territorial government was dissolved by the Congress," she says. "The overspending of his budget, which was extravagant overspending. And these rumors that kept chasing him about sort of wheeling and dealing that might not have been above board caused the Congress just to lose confidence in the leadership.

"And that was the end of home rule in Washington, D.C., for a hundred years. It didn't come back until the 1970s."

But despite such a blow, Shepherd didn't hang his head in shame and walk away with his tail between his legs.

"He was not that type of person!" Crouch says with a laugh. "Sadly, he does all this for the city, makes the city look worthy of the nation's capital. Sadly for him, there was a depression in 1873, and he had to file bankruptcy. So he had to figure out what his second act was going to be."

Remembrance of Alexander Shepherd

Shepherd decided to take a chance on silver mining. So he moved his family to the Chihuahua state in Mexico and reopened an abandoned silver mine. But he didn't meet great success, and was unable to recoup the fortune he'd originally made in Washington. So he spent the last 22 years of his life living in Mexico, where he eventually died, in 1902. Though his body was returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., and he was buried in the Rock Creek Cemetery.

In 1909, the District erected a statue of Shepherd near 14th and E Streets Northwest.

"In 1909, people then are wanting to pay tribute to him, this man who did so much for the look, the infrastructure, the built environment of their hometown."

But in the 1970s, the statue was removed from the Federal Triangle area and placed in what Crouch calls a "rather inauspicious home" on Shepherd Street Southwest, by the Blue Plains water treatment facility. And that's where the statue stayed for several decades.

"It seems that his reputation as someone who mishandled money, maybe didn't manage things very well, maybe did indulge in cronyism... dominated a lot of discussions about Alexander Shepherd," Carolyn Crouch says.

Later, a group known as the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. (AOI) decided enough was enough.

"They realized that [the rumors about Shepherd] may be true, but the contributions that he made to Washington could not go unsung," Crouch says. "And [they felt] that his statue needed to be back here, as a reminder of the important role he had in really creating a Washington D.C., that was worthy to be called nation's capital."

AOI started a campaign to get the statue back to downtown D.C., and in 2005, it was re-erected on 14th and E NW. A few years later, funding was acquired to have it restored, cleaned and lit.

Carolyn Crouch says it's true that Alexander Shepherd was, and is, a contentious and controversial figure. Nevertheless, "he really gave a lot to our city [and] deserves to be remembered, and I think in many people's minds, honored and thanked for what he did."

[Music: "'Who's the Boss?' Theme - Instrumental" by Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft]

Photos: Alexander Robey Shepherd

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