How is Washington, DC like this scene from Ghostbusters 2?

Like the fictionalized residents of New York City in 1989, most present-day Washingtonians are unaware that an unusual river of slime runs beneath their city. (But ours is not paranormal). Here’s the story.

Constitution Avenue was once a river

Back when DC was born, water was integral to the development of commerce. Roads were unreliable, and other technologies didn’t yet exist. Why else would the city’s founders have placed it at the intersection of two swampy, humid, mosquito-filled waterways, the Potomac and the Eastern Branch (now called the Anacostia)?

In fact, Pierre L’Enfant’s original 1792 plan for DC shows us that their city was far more watery than the one we know today. If the Washington Monument had been built then, it would have sat on the shores of the Potomac, and the Lincoln Memorial would be underwater. From the foot of Capitol Hill out to the Potomac, there ran a body of water called Tiber Creek (whose name had been changed from Goose Creek when it was decided that DC would become America’s capital, because they were emulating Rome).

L’Enfant Plan. Image from Wikipedia.

DC’s founders and business leaders believed that the city’s economic development would be vastly enhanced if only there was a canal connecting the Anacostia River (navigable to Maryland) to the Potomac (the gateway to the west) through the city. The Washington City Canal, completed in 1815, flowed up north from the Anacostia, passed west of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and then headed due west along the Tiber River whose path is today’s Constitution Ave. In other words, Constitution Avenue was once a river.

The Tiber Creek/Washington City Canal is visible to the north. Photo by

Ever wonder what that random tiny stone house is on the Mall?

In 1828, construction began on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, another dream waterway which would connect commerce up to Pittsburgh and through all areas in between. In the original plans, the C&O system was supposed to end in Georgetown, but that idea made DC leaders nervous. They imagined that the canal would help Georgetown outshine the capital, so they ransomed their $1M investment in the project and had that changed. The C&O would now end at the Washington City Canal.

Thus completed in 1833 and known as the C&O Branch Extension, DC’s canal connection into the C&O began at the Rock Creek Basin and followed 27th Street down until it connected into the Washington City Canal at 17th and Constitution Avenues.

Image from the National Park Service.

Someone was going to have to collect the tolls and keep the records, so a Lockkeeper’s House was built at 17th and Constitution. Owned today by the National Park Service, the Lockkeeper’s House is one of the last reminders that a canal ever flowed through DC.

A small federal style house built of fieldstone and measuring 30 feet wide and 18 feet deep, the Lockkeeper’s House originally sat 40 feet west and 10 feet north of its current location, but was moved in the 1930′s to widen 17th Street.

According to some reports, the lockkeeper and his 13 children lived in the building. Otho Swain, a man born on a canal boat in 1901, whose father was a boatman and locktender and whose grandfather helped build the C&O, related this story:

My grandfather, he had boated coal down Constitution Avenue. There used to be a canal that crossed the Potomac there, and there’s a little stone house still standing on the corner of 17th and Constitution Avenue. It was a lock house. My grandmother lived in that lock house, and that’s where my grandfather met her.

The Lockkeeper’s House was given to the National Park Service at the beginning of the 20th century during the construction of Potomac Park. For a time it was used as a “public comfort station”, but today NPS uses it as storage.

Decline to slime

Although DC’s founders believed that waterways would bring commerce, we know better today — railroads were the technology of the future. As the rail was developed, the canal system fell into disuse. (Plus, the Washington City Canal had always been a bit of a mess. The water was shallow and so could only handle boats drawing less than 3 feet of water.)

The canal system was completely abandoned by the end of the 1850′s. The C&O Canal only made it as far as Cumberland, MD before it went under. What did DC’s residents do with this body of water running through its middle? Throughout the Civil War and after, they turned the Washington City Canal into an open sewer.

Drawing of the sewer in 1894 from via the Affordable Housing Institute.

Luckily, when Boss Shepard came into power in the 1870′s, he added this smelly problem to his list of public improvements. A young German immigrant engineer, Adolph Cluss, was enlisted to move the body of water underground. He apparently built a tunnel from Capitol Hill down to the Potomac that is “wide enough for a bus to drive through to put Tiber Creek underground.”

A river runs under it

Filling in the canal created B Street, which was subsequently renamed Constitution Avenue. Although the massive undertaking solved public health problems, the federal government apparently did not contemplate the potential engineering dilemmas that might result from building on top of an underground creek/sewer From Wikipedia:

Many of the buildings on the north side of Constitution apparently are built on top of the creek, including the Internal Revenue Service Building, part of which is built on wooden piers sunk into the wet ground along the creek course. The low-lying topography there contributed to the flooding of the National Archives Building (Archives I in Washington, DC), IRS, and Ariel Rios buildings that forced their temporary closure beginning in late June 2006.

In fact, until the mid 1990s, that part of Washington around the intersection of 14th Street and Constitution was an open parking lot because the underground water was too difficult to deal with. During construction of the Ronald Reagan Building (1990—98), the engineers figured out how to divert the water. But that dewatering then reduced the water level underneath the IRS building which caused the wooden piers to lose stability and part of the IRS building foundation to sink.

More information is in a Northwest Current article from 1997 about reports to the National Capital Planning Commission on the flooding issues, and this photo from BMS CAT shows flooding at the National Archives.

Maybe DC doesn’t have real ghosts flowing under our feet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t haunted by underground things from the city’s past.

Cross-posted at The Location.