THE HISTORY MP CONSTRUCTION
THE B STREET CAiiAL
Presented as the fulfillment of a requirement
for initiation into
TAU BETA PI
Raymond S. Put man
November 26, 1937.
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Summary ------------ --..--2
Karnes of the canal and Its streams - - - 3
Location of the canal and creek - - - - 3
The purpose -------------- 4
Size and length ------------ 5
Construction and use ---------- 6
The closing of the canal -------- 9
Costs ---- _--_-_-____ 10
Conclusions -------------- 10
Bibliography - -------- 12
Sketch and map ----------- 13-14
During the years from 1815 to 1871 there ran a canal be-
tween the mouth of the Tiber Greek and the west foot of Capitol
Hill. It was called the Tiber Creek Canal and was a part of a
canal which ran from the mouth of the Tiber Creek to the
Anacostia River at the Havy Yard, The whole thing was called
the Washington Canal. Since the Tiber Creek Canal comprised
the major portion of the Washington Canal the latter is included
in this paper. It was built over a period of tiventy years
being finished in 1815. A private corporation did most of the
work after several attempts by the Maryland State Legislature.
In 1828 it was taken over by the city (Washington) . During the
fifteen years following it played an important part in the com-
merce of the city. It was used intennittantly up to 1855, being
unnavigable part of the time because the mud it collected.
After 1855 and up to the time of its filling, which started in
1871, it was almost a stagnant body of water breeding filth and
disease to that portion of the city. The bed of the canal became
the floor of a sewer (one of the largest in the world at that time)
which carried storm water and sewerage into the Potomac River.
Above It now extends beautiful Constitution Avenue, so that what
was once a series of stinking stagnant pools is transformed to
a magnificent boulevard connecting the Capitol and the President's
NAMES OF THE CANAL AMD ITS STREAMS
The name of the creek in. which canal was situated was
originally Goose Greek but was changed by general consent
to Tiber Creek. The Tiber was called a creek and also a
river both appearing indiscriminately* Another creek
intimately connected with the canal was St. James Creek
later known as James Creek. There was also more than one
name given to the canal. The part of the canal between
the Capitol and the Potomac River was known as the Tiber'
Creek Canal and less prominently as the B Street Canal.
Still the whole canal, from the Potomac to the Anacostia
Rivers, was known as the Tiber Creek Canal because the
Tiber split at the Capitol and went both ways in the direc-
tion of the canal. Two other names were given to the whole
canal. These were the Washington Canal and the City Canal,
All of these names have been used and all had their applica-
tion. The most popular names were the Tiber Creek Canal
for the western portion of the artificial waterway and the
Washington Canal for the designation of the whole canal.
LOCATION OF THE CANAL AND CREEK
A look at the map of the ground of the city of Washington
in 1792 with streets as they are today superimposed on it
will give a good idea of the location of the Tiber Creek,
The natural valley of the Tiber from the Capitol, where it
split, was used for the location of the bed of the canal.
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The sketch shows the planned and also the actual route
of the canal. The canal as planned by L 1 Enfant was to
follow the James Creek in the southern portion. The route
Which entered the Anacostia at the Navy Yard was chosen to
avoid cutting through some high ground. It was a change
prompted by economy. The James Creek Canal was not cut
through until 1874, after a part of the Washington Canal
had been filled In and a part had been arched to form a
After the canal was built (1815) a slight change was
made in 1822. It originally traveled on B Street to an
Intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue, it followed Pennsyl-
vania Avenue to 3rd Street, N.W., and went south on 3rd to
Maryland Avenue, thence running in an southeasterly direction
as shown. In order to drain the low ground about six
blocks due west of the Capitol the course of the canal was
changed. At a point between 6th and 7th Streets, N.W.
the canal was made to turn south until It intersected
theoretical West Capitol Street. Prom there it headed for
the Capitol and joined the original canal at 3rd Street.
L'Enfant's original plan in his plan of the city was to
have a beautiful canal flanked by two great avenues leading
from the Potomac past the White House to the nation's Capitol.
His idea was less commercial and more artistic than the actual
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The piirpose as seen by the constructors and enterpriz-
ers of the canal was one of commerce for the city. It
was to be an entrance to the center of the city and a con-
necting link between the eastern and western sections of
the city. It was to be a protected and rapid means of trans-
porting coal, wood, and produce into or across the city.
The canal also had a secondary purpose. It was to drain
the marshes and low ground flanking the Tiber and James Greeks ,
size and length
The size of the canal as originally proposed was to be
15 feet wide at the surface, 12 feet wide at the bottom, and
nowhere over 12 feet deep but everywhere holding 4 feet of
water at low tide. There were to be basins for harboring
at regular intervals.
The actual widths were much greater but the depths were
less to the point of inadequacy. The width from the west-
ern extremity to the first bend (after the change) was 150
feet, from the first bend to Maryland Avenue 70 feet, from.
Maryland Avenue to N Street, S.E. 40 feet, under the New
Jersey Bridge 19 feet, and from N Street to the Navy Yard
outlet 100 feet.
The total length was 15,326 feet or 2.9 miles. The
partial lengths are given on the sketch.
The greatest average depth the canal ever had, which was
at the time of its completion, was 4 feet. After the com-
pletion the depth varied because of the mud which was contin-
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ually filling It. Only by the use of mud machine a was
the depth great enough to keep the canal navigable.
CONSTRUCTION AND USE*
The first attempt to carry out the plans of the canal
as designed by L' Enfant was abandoned In 1795. It had
evidently been started some time in 1794 and 2700 cubic
yards of earth were removed. The empty ditch was just
left as it had been dug. The second attempt to complete
the canal was made in November 1795 when the Maryland
Legislature passed an act authorizing several persons to
raise a sum of money to finish It by means of a lottery.
This lottery was a very decided failure as far as the
canal was concerned because after the prizes had been
given and the expenses paid there was no money left.
Again in 1797 a lottery was authorized and drawn but
no money came of it either. It is rather unbelievable
that a lottery would be so expensive as to yield no net
returns. The Maryland Legislature threatened an Investi-
gation but nothing was done in this line. At this time
the course of the lower or southern part of the canal
was changed from the course In the original plans. The
original plan was, that from what is now the intersection
of South Capitol Street and Virginia Avenue the course of
the canal was down the va. ley of the James Creek. To avoid
cutting through some high ground the course was changed to
*N0TE; Since there is ambiguity in the name and since
the canal on B Street was an Integral part of the whole
canal, the whole canal is included in this paper.
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go down Virginia Avenue to 2nd Street S. E. and thence
down 2nd Street past the Navy Yard to the Anacostia River,
In 1302 a private corporation was formed for the purpose
of digging and managing the canal, the money invested to
be returned by wharf charges and tolls. Although no actual
work was done for about a dozen years interest was still
evident by the fact that in the years 1804, 05, 06, and 08
reports and investigations were made concerning it.
On May 2, 1810 the first spadefull of earth was re-
moved in ceremonies which were attended by the President
of the United States, the Mayor of the city, l!r. Caldwell
who was to do the work, and other notables, The canal was
under construction for five and a half years . It may be
noticed that the canal does not follow the stream bed
exactly. The cut from the canal was probably used to fill
the stream bed where the two did not coincide because the
total flow of the stream was to pass through the canal.
At the canal's completion another celebration was held
(November 21, 1815) including a cruise of the canal on a
large barge. During the cruise soundings were taken and
the depth averaged 4 feet and was in no place less than
3 feet. This was within construction requirements but in
a few months the bottom of the canal was exposed at low tide.
The flow of the canal was not fast enough to carry away the
mud that entered it from its various tributaries. This
natural filling of the canal v/as a constant source of
trouble to the company and those using the canal. Also a
few months after its completion a cry went up concerning
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the exhorbant whorf rates and tolls. The charge on coal
and wood made the use of it almost prohibitive,
Lmring 1817 and 18 the canal became so choked that it
could not be used south of the Centre Market, A reason
set forth for its failure to keep clean was the meeting of
the tides from the Potomac and the Anacostia. Although it
was proposed to deepen the canal to 8 feet the company was so
nearly broke that It was powerless to act. The city govern-
ment discussed taking it over and improving it but this was
not done for 10 years,
As mentioned under Location the position of a short strip
was changed in 1822. This was done to facilitate the drain-
ing of a swamp about a half mile from the capitol to the west.
Either in 1828 or 1831 (sources differ) the canal was taken
over by the city of Washington, This was an oppertune time for
such a move because the C and Canal was finished in 1828 and
had its termination near the mouth of the Tiber Creek section.
This opened up much trade for the Washington Canal,
The whole canal was kept clear and extensively used for
about 15 years . But. with the falling off of trade In the
C and the importance of the Washington Canal dropped rapidly*
The Washington corporation under the dominant leadership of
"Boss" Sheperd made valiant efforts to get the canal in a navigable
condition. Among the things done, in 1850 the width of the
B Street section v/as reduced from 160 feet to 130 feet as an
economy move. Also the possibilities of digging the James
Creek section as originally planned was discussed. This
would give another outlet for the canal as well as drainage
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of a large swamp in that section.
The last straw was the "building of the B and Railroad.
Its building broke the C and Canal Company, which in turn
reduced the trade of the Washington. Canal to almost nothing.
Up to that time (1855) the canal had been operating Inter-
mit tantly, the canal filling with mud so rapidly that mud
machines working constantly could not at times keep it clear.
After 1855 it was more or less abandoned, except that in
1858 a ditch was dug in the James Creek section down to the
Arsenal which is now the Army War College. The ditch was to
provide drainage for the disease breeding swamp there. It
was left to the Federal Government to continue it to the
During the period between the years 1855 and 1871 the canal
was almost stagntjit . Malarial flies and mosquitos infested it.
Typhoid germs spread from it because the sewers of that section
poured their refuse into its dirty waters. Animals going down
to get a drink would be caught in its mucky flats to ale or be
shot. For this reason the shores were dotted with animal car-
casses. This indeed was a deplorable condition without taking
into account the fact that It was at the front door of the
United States Capitol Building and the back door of the
THE CLOSING OF THE GAKAL
Starting in 1871 the conversion of the canal to a sewer
was effected. By a series of appropriations it was finally
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covered by 1879. A sewer was formed In the B Street section
and also from that to a point at South Capitol Street and
Virginia Avenue. The portion south of this point was filled
in having no sewer. The sewer made of the B Street section
was one of the largest in the world at that time. It con-
sisted of an arch of 18 inches of brick 7 feet 6 inches high
and 30 feet wide set over a wooden floor supported by wooden
cross beans, A layer of rubble 5 feet thick v/as placed up
the outside on both sides,
A cobble stone street, B Street, ran above the sewer until
recently when the street was changed to a smooth spacious
avenue flanked with trees and called Constitution Avenue,
The first lottery was to raise $58,500, but resiilts indi-
cate that only a part of it was raised because too many
tickets were sold on credit. The second lottery was a repe-
tition of the first so that the amount actually raised can
not be stated, A representative total would be $25,000.
$85,300, was spent on the actual construction of the
canal between 1809 and 1815. It is interesting to note that
the company did not pay any dividends on its stock while it
was privately operated. The stock had a par of £100. but
sold at $30 • The wharf charges and tolls were all used in
the upkeep of the canal.
In 1850 £100,000, of city money and ,,,40,000. of government
money v/as spent in the attempt to make the canal navigable.
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The only conclusions that can be drawn are that the
canal was a failure. It was a failure in its original pur-
pose of beautifying the city because it was at all times
an eyesore with its unt ended irregular wharves, swampy
lowlands for banks, and later its filth and bad odor. It
was a financial failure because it never paid for itself.
In fact had the private corporation held it all the time it
would have gone bankrupt. The major portion of the time it
was a failure commercially. There were very few times that
it could be used at low tide and the rates were such that
they were unsatisfactory to those using the canal. And
lastly it was a failure from the standpoint of health.
During the whole of its existence the sewerage of the section
of the city emptied Into it to be carried by It to the
rivers, and in its later life it was little more than a cess
pool, practically stagnant, even failing to drain the swamps
through which it flowed.
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1. Bryan- History of the National Capital; Vol 1 pg 191,
242,239 Vol 2 pg 105, 264.
2 Crew- Centennial History of '.Vashlngton D, C # ; pg 317-8
3. J. C. Proctor- Liagazine Section of Washington Star;
Oct. 30, 1932,
4. Duhamel- Tiber Creek in Records of the Colombia
Historical Society; Vol 33-34
5. J. Groggon- Older Washington in Washington Star;
Jan. 25, 1913
6. i'indall-History of the City of Washington; pg 255
7. Washington Post; Sept. 11, 1932
8. H. M. Owens- History of Tiber Creek Sewer
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