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Full text of "History and construction of the lime-kilns at K Street and Rock Creek Parkway / by Henry Alfred Essex. published 1938 April 13."

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Henry Alfred Essex 

A Thesis Presented for Initiation 
Into the Maryland Beta 
of Tau Beta Pi 
April 13, 1938. 



Travelers on the Rock Creek-Potomac Parkway frequent- 
ly notice some stone ruins just north of iC street and wonder 
what they are. Their guesses are probably quite varied but sel- 
dom correct. These grey stone structures are the last visible 
remains of what was once a flourishing lime business which ex- 
isted in the vicinity. 

These kilns marked the start of a pioneer industry 
in the Washington area, the manufacture of oement. Prior to 
the erection of these kilns the lime w&a either hauled from 
other cities at great expense or burned on the construction job. 

The first lime kilns that were built in this area 
were built about 1830. Others sprang up across the nearby can- 
al and farther south in the district around what is now the 
intersection of Hew York and Virginia Avenues. 

The earliest kilns in the tract between K street, L 
street, Twenty-seventh street and Rock Creek were run by the 
Samuel Smoot family from about 1830 to 1855. This site was 
then acquired by William H. Godey whose family controlled the 
business until 1897. Under the Godeys the business was expand- 
ed and improved. In fact, today these kilns are generally 
known hs Godey' s Lime Kilns. In 189 7 the estatlishment became 
the property of John McL. Dobson who continued in business un- 
til 1907. The land was taken over by the United States Govern- 
ment about 1920 for the extension of Rock Creek park. 



The lime from these lime -kilns was made by heating 
calcium carbonate or limestone until all of the carbon dioxide 
was driven off. leaving only calcium oxide or unslaked lime. 
The limestone was brought down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal 
from quarries in Maryland between Seneca and Harper's Ferry. 

Godey's Lime-Kilns have no historical significance, 
and only mark the remains of an industry which died a natural 
death because of the supercession of the use of lime by the 
superior Portland Cement and gypsum plaster. 




Today our use of lime is chiefly limited to the fert- 
ilizing of our gardens and the lining of tennis courts. However, 
this was not the case a hundred years ago. At that time lime 
was a very useful product. It found wide use as a disinfectant, 
whitewash, plaster, and cement. In agriculture,, lime was and is 
used to sweeten the soil, that is, render it less acid. When- 
ever a consumer desired some lime, he generally burned and slaked 
it himself. This practice did not give uniform or high quality 
lime; therefore to Improve the quality of this important product 
an industry sprang up. 

Shortly before 1830 a Mr. Samuel Smoot built some 
lime-kilns just north of K street on the west side of Twenty- 
seventh street. At these kilns the lime was carefully calcined 
and tlaked. The new business apparently prospered because an- 
other kiln was built about 1850. In writing about the lime 
business a contemporary writer says that the stone coming down 
the Canal made lime half the price of that coming from the East, 
Evidently at this time Georgetown was considered to be in the 
Middle West. 

Samuel Smoot and his descendants continued to operate 
the business until 1855, (I believe this to be the date, but I 
was unable to authenticate it. ) when the site was bought by 


Y/llliam H. Godey, In the Georgetown Directory of 1855 William 
H. Godey is listed as a painter, but in subsequent directories 
he is listed as a lime merchant. Mr. Godey conducted the busi- 
ness until his death in 1871. The property was bequeathed to 
his wife, Mary Godey and at her death went to her son, Edward 
I, Godey. It was under Edward Godey that the business reached 
its height. In 1684 Edward Godey is listed as having applied 
for a building permit for the erection of a lime-kiln. 

In 1684 an advertisement was published which spoke of 
Mr. Edward Godey as being one of the enterprising business men 
of Georgetown. Concerning his product it states, "The capacity 
of the works is two thousand barrels weekly and surpasses all 
others in quality of whiteness, yielding, and working cool. 
The Government and all leading merchants will use no other, be- 
ing burned in improved kilns and by wood." 

•At this time (1884) the premises Included five hun- 
dred feet on I street and five hundred feet on the east side 
of Twenty -seventh street. The Washington Lime Kilns as this 
establishment was then called, also manufactured cement, plaster, 
and hair for the plaster. Twenty-five men were employed at 
this plant to operate five "patent" kilns. There may have been 
five kilns in 1884, but one of these seems to have been com- 
pletely obliterated by changes in the vicinity. 

These kilns were ideally located at the junction of 
the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Rock Creek, and the D otomac 



River. Rook Creek at that time was navigable to fairly large 
"boats. Ready access was possible to the limestone deposits in 
Maryland near Harper's Perry and shipment of lime to market was 
made easy by the convenient waterways. The limestone for these 
kilns came from the limestone region in Maryland which runs 
parallel to the mountain ranges and through the center of Fred- 
erick County. In this region there are numerous lime-kilns 
still to he seen. 

In 1884 the lime industry was booming suffioiently 
to support the establishment of other kilns on the west side 
of the C. & 0. Canal by Cammack and Decker on what is now the 
site of the Smoot Sand and travel Corporation. 

The Godey family continued in the lime business un- 
til 1897. In that year the establishment was taken over by 
John McL. Dobson. Operations continued at the plant until 

About the turn of the century Portland Cement came 
into common use. This caused the large scale production of 
lime for cement to be unprofitable. 

In 1907 and 1908 the sheds and warehouses of the lime 
works situated on L street and Twenty-seventh street were de- 
molished to make way for the erection of the Sterling Laundry. 
When the land along Rook Creek v as bought by the Government in 


193Q for the establishment of a park, the lime-kilns were in- 
cluded.. At this time the wooden superstructure of the lime- 
kilns was removed. 

From this sketch it must be s en that these kilns 
hare no national historical significance. The National Capi- 
tal Parks Service says that the lime -kiln's chief reason for 
existence is that they make a good retaining wall for the em- 
bankment on the west side of Twenty-seventh street. To prevent 
passers-by from being deceived by the look of venerable age, 
the Parks Service has erected a sign telling briefly what 
they are. 



(1) Barrel of Kiln f4) Fire-boxes 

(£) Body of Kiln (5) Firing Platforms 

(3) Fire Arohes (6) Cooling Kettle 
(7) Draw Pit 




Godey's lime-kilns are vertical, separate feed kilns 
of typical American design. They are rather roughly built of 
stone into the side of a hill. The exact origin of this type 
of construction is unknown, hut similar kilns may he seen all 
over the country. They^ chiefly in rural areas where farmers 
operate them a few days each year to get fertilizer for their 
fields. The reason for the kilns being "built in the side of 
a hill is that this makes the top of the kiln accessible for 
the dumping of limestone into the tody of the kiln and also pro- 
vides for the removal of the calcined lime at the bottom. 

Godey's kilns are built of natural gneiss rock which 
is found in abundance along the Potomac Hiver a mile or two 
above the kilns. The stone is laid as uncoursed rubble. The 
interiors of the kilns with the exception of the fire arches 
are lined with West Branch fire-brick. The fire arches them- 
selves are made of stone faced with fire-clay. The fire boxes 
were lined with clay brick and had iron grates and fire doors. 
The arches over the fire-boxes and over the draw pit are also 
made of clay briok. At the bottom of the body of the kiln 
there is an externally braced heavy sheet steel cooling kettle. 
This is nothing more than the inverted frustrum of a cone. 

These kilns do not conform rigidly to any particular 



set of dimensions, Each one seems to differ in size from the 
others by a foot or two. Possibly this is due to the mason's 
difficulty in fitting his stones. A typioal set of dimensions 
appears on Figure I. The kilns are approximately square on the 
outside and average about twenty-four feet in height. The fir- 
ing platform is now almost level wit:, the ground. ;Vhen the 
kilns were "built, the firing platform was about five and a half 
feet atove the ground. This change is due to the filling w-.ioh 
was done when this area became part of the Park?/ay, Formerly 
the draw pit arch and the firing platform were covered by wood- 
en sheds. These were the superstructure referred to as having 
been torn down in 1920. 



OHEI.II ■■1A T . r--OJESS 

Unslaked lime, calcium oxide, is made by a simple 
chemiGtl process. When limestone or calcium carbonate is heat- 
ed, carbon dioxide is driven off leaving calcium oxide. This 
may be written chemically as: 

CaCOs ♦ heat^l CO* + CaO. 


Calcium oxide is an unstable chemical compound in air since it 
soon comtines with the carbon dioxide of the air to reform cal- 
cium carbonate which is useless for cementing. To oircumvent 
this the calcium oxide is slaked, that is, a measured quantity 
of water is added to form calcium hydroxide, a much more stable 
compound. The chemical equation for this is: 

CaO + Hpjjirheat * CafOH^. 
When lime is used as cement it derives its strength 
as a binder from the fact that it changes to calcium carbon- 
ate, a hard insoluble compound, when exposed to the carbon di- 
oxide in the air. To harden and form a strong bond lime mort- 
ar must be exposed to air. Lime mortar cannot be used under- 
water or any place not in contact with the air. Lime does not 
make satisfactory concrete because of the above property and 
because of excessive shrinkage causing the formation of large 
cracks. To prevent this shrinkare even in mortars a large pro- 
portion of sand must be used. 




These kilns are known as vertical separate feed kilns 
because the fuel and. the limeys tone are not mixed during the 
process and the limestone oomes only in contact with the heated 
gases. The kilns were charged with limestone from the top. 
Limestone was dumped in until the cooling kettle and the body 
of the kiln were filled on the initial charging. The fires in 
the fire-boxes were then kindled. v?hen the limestone above the 
fire arches was sufficiently calcined the limestone below the 
fire arches was drawn off leaving only lime in the kiln. The 
kiln was then recharged with limestone. V.hen the new stone 
was burned, the contents of the cooling kettle and the lower 
part of the body of the kiln were drawn off. However, on the 
seoond drawing lime is the drawn off product. In this way the 
process is continuous and will go on as long as fire is kept 
in the fire boxes and limestone is added. 

The progress of the process was determined by noting 
th reduction of volume of the limestone. Limestone will shrink 
twenty to twenty-five per cent when calcined to lime. Lime as 
it comes from the kiln is a lumpy solid. Any powder present 
indicates that air slaking (the deleterious formation of cal- 
cium carbonate) has started. Lime must be pulverized to fairly 
small sizes before water slaking. 



Godey's lime kilns were wood "burning kilns. Wood is 
considered by some lime experts to be the ideal lime burning 
fuel. Since lime forms from limestone at 750°-900° Centigrade, 
very hot fires are not necessary. In fact, where too muoh 
heat 1b applied to the lime incipient fusion will occur. This 
is especially true if there are any impurities present In the 
limestone. In modern lime -kilns using gas as a fuel, the car- 
bon dioxide which comes from the limestone is frequently run 
back and mixed with the air for the fuel to cool the flame of 
the gas burner. 

Yertical separate feed kilns are the type generally 
used today in the manufacture of lime. However, they are much 
more efficient than kilns like Godey's lime -kilns. Godey's 
kilns were very inefficient because they were built of stone a 
great deal of the fuel heat was wasted in raising the stone 
walls to a high temperature. The limestone only received a 
fraction of the woodfe heat, A modern kiln is made of steel and 
has a fire-brick lining and therefore requires less heat for 
heating the kiln walls. 

While vertical mixed feed kilns are not the most ef- 
ficient type, they produce a whiter, and when under expert super. 
vision a more uniform lime than any other type of lime furnace. 



The lime from these lime -kilns has played an import- 
ant part in the "building whioh/y occurred in Washington. They 

were built when the oity was very young. It is unfortunate 
that they could not keep pace with the changing times, but 
while they produced a fine commodity for their day modern needs 
have outstripped the capabilities of their product. The lime 
industry is dead in Washington with these crumbling piles of 
stone to mark its place. Other tangible evidence of its exist- 
ence may be seen by digging in the vicinity of the kilns. So 
much lime was scattered about by the lime workers that the 
lational Capital Parks Service was forced to dig down more than 
ten feet to get clear of the lime in order to plant trees in 
the park that has replaced and old industrial area. 



"Heoords of the Columbia Historical Society" , Sessford's Annals 
Vol. 11. 

"Boyd's Wasliln°:ton and Georgetown Direotory" 
1853, 1855, 1858 

The Washington Star 

Files of the National Capital Parks Service 

Interview — Mr. J. E. Conley, United States Bureau of Mines 

"Ma ry 1 and Ge o 1 o g i c al Su r ye y ^ t "by S. B. Mathews and John M. Grasty. 
1910 Edition 

"Cements. Limes and Plasters" , by Edwin C. Eckel, 0. E. 
Third Edition 19S8 



Figure £, Go&ey's Lime -Kilns 


Pigure 3 


Figure 4. One of the Kilns as It Appears Today 
Contrast this with Figure 3. 


Figure 5. View of Draw Pit Showing 
Bottom of Cooling Kettle. 


Figure 6. Interior View Showing Fire Arch