Monday, August 17, 2009

Speaking of Georgetown...

Potomac River and C&O canal in Georgetown circa 1862

Now that DC tourist season is in full swing, one of the places in the city most certain to be teeming with visitors is chic, glamorous Georgetown. Home now to elite DC residents, charming old houses, expensive restaurants, and of course – Banana Republic, the Georgetown of today is a symbol of Washington old money and power. It is however, amusing, to imagine the thoughts of the port city’s original inhabitants if they knew that their modest dwellings and butcher shops were now home to upscale boutiques and outrageously priced frozen yogurt shops. I am of course embellishing, to a point. There always were large houses on the hillside that led up from the Potomac river basin into Maryland, but the areas closest to the river – today’s K and M streets – were originally filled with the simple structures of a working port city and Washington’s only claim at a manufacturing history.

British settlers arrived in the area in 1696 and immediately drove away all of the Nacotchanke Indians who maintained a small village in the area. Perfectly situated on the river to receive and send off the shipments of Maryland and Virginia tobacco headed for the homeland (Europe), Georgetown eventually became one of the largest tobacco ports in the colonies. The town was incorporated in 1751 as part of the British colony of Maryland, and contrary to popular belief, named not for soon to be first president George Washington, but for King George II of Great Britain. (Although there is some speculation that it was possibly named for land-owners George Gordon and George Beall). The Old Stone House, the oldest house in the District of Columbia, was built during this period of Georgetown’s history, and is maintained today by the National Park Service as a rare survivor of colonial Washington.

After the American Revolution, the city was incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1791 in a deal reached at the well-known Suter’s Tavern, a frequent haunt of George Washington. The location of Suter’s Tavern is today unknown, but the most likely location is thought to be on K Street, underneath what is now the AMC movie theater. (Perhaps why they can get away with charging $20.00 for a movie and popcorn?) Shortly after, Georgetown reached an early heyday, with money pouring in from the ports and high profile DC residents like Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key purchasing properties in the area. Water powered mills, producing mainly flour and other processed grain, also brought money and work into the area, including droves of slaves, who are a long forgotten part of Georgetown’s past.

The heyday was unfortunately a little short lived, as the Potomac River began to silt up (some speculate because of the increased traffic and manufacturing in the area) and merchant boats were no longer able to make it all the way up to Georgetown. The early solution to the problem was the construction of the C&O Canal, which connected the District with Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. The success of the canal kept Georgetown afloat through most of the 19th century, but by the 1880s the problems with the river were again severe, and in 1890 a massive flood virtually destroyed all travel along the canal.

As the trade and manufacturing left, Georgetown became what can only be called a slum, with a large portion of its population consisting of the poverty stricken African American workers who had no place to go once their jobs were gone. They continued to live in cramped housing on K and M streets, and much of the structures that still remain there today - in what is now the heart of historic Georgetown – survived simply because there was no money to do anything else with them.

Meanwhile, in upper Georgetown near Rock Creek Park, luxury apartment buildings began to go up in the 1920’s and construction slowly made it’s way down towards the Potomac. In the 1930’s the area was given a new cache when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt purchased a home there. In the 1950’s a historic neighborhood association was formed to protect the area’s wealth of historic properties, and in the 1960’s Georgetown was effectively saved when John F. Kennedy, who owned a home there while serving as a Congressman, was elected President. Today the magnificent homes in Georgetown remain populated by the DC elite, and the port city-turned slum town-turned new Apple store location of K and M streets continues to attract the trade and commerce of visitors from around the world.

Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Ecker, Grace Dunlop (1933). A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Garrett & Massie, Inc..

Mitchell, Alexander D (2000). Washington DC Then and Now. Thunder Bay


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