Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Under the city

Talk about creepy. Just in time for Halloween, the Washington Post Answer Man reported recently on rumors of buildings in DC that had underground doors leading into the dark and swirling remains of Washington's old Tiber Creek. Naturally, many of these are unfounded claims, but it prompted me to do a little investigating of my own.

The creek was originally known as Goose Creek before it became part of the territory of Washington DC and was renamed in honor of Rome's Tiber River. Early maps show that its course ran south from around the intersection of today's 1st St NE and North Capitol Street down towards the Capitol building before turning west and following today's Constitution Avenue and meeting the Potomac near the Washington Monument.

Historic image of the city showing Tiber Creek, and present day Washington

In his master plan for the city L'Enfant actually proposed using the Tiber as a canal to the Potomac, and in 1815 the part of the creek that ran along Constitution Avenue was added to the Washington City Canal system. Unfortunately, without sufficient infrastructure, by the 1870s the Washington Canal had become little other than a giant sewer and was eventually paved over as part of a city improvement project. Board of Public Works lead architect Adolf Cluss was responsible for the construction of the giant brick tunnel which housed the river and allowed for the construction of the roadway above it. Parts of the tunnel still exist in deteriorated form today, and the Old Post Offce building does indeed have a manhole cover in the basement which reveals the much diminished creek trickling by when opened. There are also the remains of an historic C&O canal lock keeper's house at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, which is where the mouth of the Tiber Creek once opened into the Tidal Basin.

Because of the instability of the old creek bed, many of the buildings on or near Constitution avenue, including the IRS building, The National Archives, and the Warner Theater had to be built with deep pier like foundations. The Warner Theater was actually supposed to be named the "Cosmopolitan Theater", but after its owners spent so much money on the construction of the foundation, they ended up having to seek investors and named it the Earle Theater after one of their investors instead. It was later renamed the Warner after being bought by Harry Warner. Engineers working on the construction of the massive Ronald Reagan Building in the 1990s appeared to have finally found a way to successfully divert the water, but their methods actually reduced the water level so significantly that the IRS building's foundation lost stability and began to sink.

Today the creek is mostly a silent, hidden piece of Washington's past, but every now and again it rears its head. Before being diverted underground, in 1804 the creek caused one of the most significant floods in Washington's history, sending sewage, livestock, and people racing down Pennsylvania Avenue. More recently, the remains of the riverbed became saturated during heavy rains in June of 2006, and caused terrible flooding in the downtown area, threatening among other things, the copy of the Constitution kept at the National Archives. Thankfully, nothing major was lost.

Kelly, John. Answer Man, Washington Post.Sunday, November 1, 2009. http://www.washingt wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 10/31/AR20091031 01607_2.html

Tiber Creek, Wikipedia.

Image Source: Tiber Creek, Wikipedia

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