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Full text of "The history and construction of the B Street Canal."

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Presented as the fulfillment of a requirement 
for initiation into 


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 

• m 


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 


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. 


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. 

_ 4 - 

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 
construction revealed. 

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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. 


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 
Anacostia River, 

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 
presidential Mansion. 


Starting in 1871 the conversion of the canal to a sewer 
was effected. By a series of appropriations it was finally 

- 10 - 

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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