An old canal house

A piece of Wash­ing­ton’s his­tory inches to­ward a spot at the Mall’s wel­come plaza

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

was eased 50 feet to a prom­i­nent new sta­tus on the Mall.

Dis­tance: 50 feet. Top speed: roughly 0.3 mph. Elapsed time: about 30 min­utes, with starts and stops. The wheels of his­tory turned slowly Thurs­day, as they car­ried a 47-ton piece of Wash­ing­ton’s past to a new spot and a prom­i­nent new sta­tus on the Mall.

A work crew us­ing high-tech mov­ing equip­ment inched the 1832 lock keeper’s house at 17th Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue NW away from the spot where it sat, tat­tered and for­lorn, for 100 years.

Boarded up and for­got­ten for the past 40 years, the sim­ple stone build­ing once sat at a bustling hub of Wash­ing­ton’s com­merce — the junc­tion of two ship­ping canals and a huge wharf on the Po­tomac River.

It served as the home of the keeper of the canal lock, which raised and low­ered canal boats as they trav­eled between the District and Cum­ber­land, Md.

The op­er­a­tion Thurs­day moved the house to a spot off the in­ter­sec­tion that will be­come a new wel­come cen­ter and gate­way to the Mall, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit Trust for the Na­tional Mall, which funded the $11 mil­lion project.

The house, just north of the Na­tional World War II Memo­rial, is the old­est build­ing on the Mall, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice. But since its hey­day, it has been used by squat­ters, as a po­lice head­quar­ters, for re­strooms and for stor­age.

Its move — five years in the mak­ing — is the first pri­vate construction project on the Mall, said John E.

“Chip” Akridge III, founder of the trust.

And it’s fo­cused on a rare Wash­ing­ton ar­ti­fact.

“It’s the only wit­ness left to that pe­riod in time, and com­merce of that time,” said Teresa Durkin, a land­scape ar­chi­tect and ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for the trust.

“It per­sists,” she said. “It’s still here, for some rea­son. . . . Ev­ery hun­dred years, it’s be­ing moved. But it’s still here. We can’t let it go.”

The house was last moved in 1915, again only a few dozen feet, from its orig­i­nal 1832 lo­ca­tion.

“We’re re­ally pleased to give it a more grace­ful and beau­ti­ful place on the Mall and open it up to the pub­lic,” Durkin said.

Un­der gray skies and flights of pass­ing geese, the house was borne on a grid of yel­low steel gird­ers atop four sets of eight-wheel dol­lies that looked like the land­ing gear of an air­liner.

The house, which had been raised from the ground, was en­cased in four ver­ti­cal gird­ers at its cor­ners and bound with chains. The mov­ing dol­lies were pow­ered by a 173-hp diesel engine, said Jamin Buck­ing­ham, project man­ager for Wolfe House and Build­ing Movers.

The move be­gan at 8:26, as morn­ing rush-hour traf­fic rum­bled through the in­ter­sec­tion a few blocks from the White House and the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment. Horns honked, an am­bu­lance screamed by and jets roared over­head.

The dol­lies’ 32 tires turned at glacial speed as they eased the struc­ture back from the south­west cor­ner of the in­ter­sec­tion.

It was a world much re­moved from the time of the lock house — a decade be­fore the start of construction on the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, be­fore Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue, be­fore the western sec­tion of the Mall ex­isted.

“At that time, 1832, this was still some­what ru­ral,” Durkin said. “There were cows walk­ing around. . . . There was a very long wharf that ex­tended here down to the [Po­tomac] river.”

The house stood at the junc­tion of two canals. The shal­low Wash­ing­ton City Canal ran mostly where east-west Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue is to­day, through the city to­ward the Capi­tol, and thence to the Ana­cos­tia River.

At 17th Street, the Wash­ing­ton canal joined a sec­tion of the Ch­e­sa­peake & Ohio Canal, which ex­tended north­west more than 180 miles to Cum­ber­land. Canal boats, pulled along a tow path by draft an­i­mals, car­ried cargo and pas­sen­gers to and from the moun­tains of the in­te­rior.

But the canal era was quickly eclipsed by newer trans­porta­tion meth­ods.

“As soon as the rail­road came through, they all be­came ob­so­lete,” Durkin said.

The city canal, plagued by river tides and other problems, was soon aban­doned and be­fouled.

“It is the grand re­cep­ta­cle of nearly all the filth of this city,” Com­mis­sioner of Pub­lic Build­ings Ben­jamin B. French wrote in 1862, ac­cord­ing to the blog Civil War Wash­ing­ton D.C.

“The waste from all the pub­lic build­ings, the ho­tels, and very many pri­vate res­i­dences is drained into it,” he wrote to Con­gress. “Un­less some­thing be done . . . the good ci­ti­zens of Wash­ing­ton must dur­ing some hot sea­sons, find them­selves vis­ited by a pesti­lence!”

Work­ers be­gan to fill the canal in the 1870s, ac­cord­ing to the Park Ser­vice.

The con­nect­ing stretch of the C&O canal was also aban­doned, and dis­ap­peared with the west­ward ex­ten­sion of the Mall.

The shore­line of the Po­tomac was pushed south by new fill. The Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment was com­pleted. And a new road, at first called B Street, and later Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue, was built over the canals.

Mu­se­ums and new memo­ri­als sprouted nearby. Pa­rades and funer­als passed by. Oc­cu­pants of the White House came and went.

The lock keeper’s house kept watch.

Shortly be­fore 9 a.m. Thurs­day, it was po­si­tioned over its new foun­da­tion — 185 years af­ter it first took its place at the site.

This spring, the trust hopes to re­open the old house — re­fur­bished and with in­te­rior his­tory dis­plays — on a new plaza.

“It’s like a dream, to me, ” Durkin said. “I’ve been wait­ing so long to see the house moved. Ev­ery time I would come over here, it would look sad­der and sad­der and sad­der. Now, it’s fi­nally moved.

“I’m just so happy that we can cel­e­brate this house and the fact that it en­dured, and it has sto­ries to tell us,” she said.

“It’s the only wit­ness left to that pe­riod in time, and com­merce of that time.” Teresa Durkin, Trust for the Na­tional Mall


An 1832 build­ing served as the home of the keeper of the canal lock, which raised and low­ered canal boats as they trav­eled between the District and Cum­ber­land, Md. On Thurs­day, work­ers shifted it 50 feet from its spot at 17th Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue NW.


A ren­der­ing shows the new lo­ca­tion of the lock keeper’s house as part of a new wel­come cen­ter for the Mall. The stone build­ing has been boarded up for 40 years.


A stone mark­ing the Wash­ing­ton City Canal is seen, above, near the lock keeper’s house at 17th Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue NW on Thurs­day. The lock keeper’s house, at left circa 1900, once sat at the junc­tion of that canal and the Ch­e­sa­peake & Ohio Canal.


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