A River Runs Through It: The DC Version

We’ve all seen Cities of the Underworld, where the History Channel takes you to the underground layers, torture chambers and bunkers of past times. You may have even seen the DC version—and if you have, then you know where my story begins. Others of you may have run into this issue when either building foundations have slipped into the ground or rains have unearthed the unexpected.

What am I talking about? Well, if you didn’t know, there were once rivers and streams that crisscrossed large parts of downtown DC. The most famous of them was known as Tiber Creek, which I learned about because the building I work in sits on top of it. Originally named Goose Creek, it was renamed after the Roman river when George Washington decided the District would rival the world class urban centers of the day. Part of his plan (by which I mean L’Enfant’s plan) was to divert the stream. Below you see a 1800 sewer map of Washington, which shows Tiber Creek on the right hand side.

1800_bmf01

It used to empty out into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that ran down what’s now Constitution Avenue to the West and what’s now Delaware Avenue SW to the South. The Western end of the C&O let out at what’s now the Washington Monument, and the Southern end split yet again to deposit at James Creek Marina and the Navy Yard. The Southern end of that canal was, in fact, James Creek—which lasted a bit later than most of Tiber Creek.

CT00054a

Turns out, that within a few years, Tiber Creek became a cesspool—an open sewer for a growing city. So in 1871, the Mayor of Washington, Alexander Shepherd decided that enough was enough, and the thing had to go. He decided it was a good idea to cover up and build over a 20 – 30 foot-wide stream which was then being used as a canal. The 3-foot high walls were 5 feet thick and covered the span of the creek. According to some references, it’s “wide enough to drive a bus through,” as this map from Sewer History shows:

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So now, the mighty (ok, maybe an overstatement) Tiber Creek runs under office buildings hidden from daylight. It goes directly under the Capitol building, the IRS building and my little corner of the world on First Street NE. The only reason the IRS building comes up is because in 2006 it flooded under almost 20 feet of water—again, according to some sources. While it’s not necessarily public which buildings exactly are over the former creek, you can take a look at the maps and probably get a pretty good idea—or so I’ve been told.

One fellow who’s done some great research and mapping on the subject is David Ramos. He digitized a mid-century map overlaying a modern day map. (The website’s quite impressive—zoom in/out, etc.) David’s map system shows the cobweb of streams running from the Columbia Heights and up the North Capitol corridor towards Fort Totten. One route runs through Bloomingdale, and explains its frequent floods. All of these draining into Tiber Creek explain why it was estimated to be about the same size as Rock Creek.

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As a side note, the lower part of Rock Creek used to be a dump for ash and soot for DC and Georgetown residents. It was so bad off, that at one point it was considered for similar treatment as its Eastern neighbor. City officials almost dammed that creek and covered it up like the Tiber Creek.

The Tiber was once a center-piece in the Irish neighborhood called Swampoodle, around what’s now Union Station. So when I go to work now, which is right behind Union Station, I think two things: Tiber Creek and Swampoodle. Neither is particularly sexy, but sure, it’s a different perspective. I guess it’s also caused some problems for the building engineers where I work, as well. Its trail also shows why the Bloomingdale neighborhood often floods. What I still can’t figure out is why you would want to build the railroads on top of a river–but maybe there’s something I’m missing.

tiber

There are more examples of the city covering up these rivulets. Slash Run used to start at Meridian Park (no surprise) and run through the South part of DuPont Circle and looping around into Rock Creek. It ran along Champlain and Kalorama Streets, though I’m guessing it’s more or less diverted into Rock Creek now.

Hickey’s Run is another one, which runs through the National Arboretum, but is covered further upstream. The Watts Branch also runs out to Capital Heights Metro, but used to run much further once upon a time.

DC was built on a swamp criss-crossed by streams. But as those streams got covered and diverted, they were not displaced. Most, if not all, of them are still traced by little underground streams, water-logged paths or sewers big enough to drive a bus through. Think of that when it rains, and remember that Mother Nature cannot be tamed or tempered, even by the most powerful city in the history of man. She’s always there, no matter how much you try to cover her up.

1791 Topographical Map.

1791 Topographical Map.

2 responses to “A River Runs Through It: The DC Version

  1. Railroads (and later roads) often run along rivers because water erodes the land into a gentle grade through the terrain. The New York Central railroad once advertised its trans-Appalachian route, which ran along the Erie Canal through NY State, as “the Water Level Route — so you can sleep,” in contrast to the Pennsylvania’s shorter but much steeper route.

    • Great point! I should have thought about that–but the way you describe it makes perfect sense. Thanks for your comment.

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