1870s map of the greater Anacostia area. Image by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

Today’s Anacostia, originally known as Uniontown, started developing in 1854, much earlier than surrounding neighborhoods. A number of obscure events triggered this, including an enterprising Naval lieutenant’s arrival and repealing tolls on the Navy Yard Bridge.

Most accounts suggest that a sale of lots by the Union (Town) Land Association in present-day Anacostia happened in 1854 because of the town’s proximity to the Navy Yard, a short walk across the bridge. Case closed, enough said. But there’s much more behind historic Anacostia’s development.

"A combination of economic and social factors gave impetus to the suburban-development movement in Anacostia,” according to The Anacostia Story, by Louise Daniel Hutchinson and published in July 1977 by the Smithsonian Press, but which lacks citations and a bibliography.

Hutchinson writes that a “desire for country living, fresh water, and relief from the heat” was the leading attraction of life across the riverbed. “Economic conditions beyond the control of the developers plagued the enterprise. In the early 1850s the Navy curtailed ship building at the Washington Navy Yard, and many skilled workers were unemployed.” As a result, Hutchinson explains, the lots of old Uniontown gained houses at a rate of only 4 per year.

A Navy lieutenant brings the round-shot and prosperity

But in January 1847, Navy Lieutenant John Dahlgren arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, to lead the manufacturing of rockets recently developed by British inventor William Hale, according to Round-shot to Rockets; A history of the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Naval Gun Factory. By April Dalhgren was leading the Bureau or Ordnance and had received the Navy’s approval for a “new and larger workshop.”

Image inside back cover of Round-shot to Rockets.

Round-Shot says:

Because there was not sufficient level ground available for ranging the guns, [Dahlgren] proposed to use the river. No such experiment for accurate results had been previously tried over the water, and it became necessary to develop a method by which the splash made by the fall of the shot might be precisely located. [Dahlgren] quickly devised by a system of triangulation. The Dahlgren test battery at the Navy Yard came thereby into existence.

In May 1854 the Navy Yard erected a new ordnance building 250 feet long and on October 25, 1854 “the furnace in the new foundry was lighted off for the first time.” Soon thereafter cannon balls began landing in the Eastern Branch. With a splash in the old man river, Uniontown got its start.

According to news stories and official reports of the Secretary of the Navy, by 1855 the Washington Navy Yard’s workforce was upwards of 1,100. The most preeminent positions were filled by 300 ship-carpenters, 200 machinists, 150 blacksmiths, 50 joiners, 60 plumbers and camboose makers, more than 100 iron and brass foundry workers, 85 civil engineers, and 85 laborers.

In April 1860, before Abraham Lincoln’s election, the Baltimore Sun took notice of the city’s first suburban development that sprung up to house the new workers that Dahlgren’s innovations required. 

Some time since The Sun noticed that within the last few years a new and flourishing neighborhood had sprung up on the margin of the Eastern Branch, immediately opposite the Navy Yard. For reasons that place is known and recognised [sic] as “Uniontown.”

The story also describes the laying of a corner-stone for a new Methodist Episcopal Church on land described as being on “three of the most eligible lots” donated by developers John Fox and John Van Hook.

A little more than a year later, as troops flooded into the city on the verge of Civil War, the Seventy-first New York gave a matinee concert before a sizable and distinguished crowd, according to Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Reveille in Washington. “One of the great cast-iron Dahlgren guns was fired at targets in the river, and the Seventy-first New York marched in dress parade.”

Removing tolls brings east of the river closer

The other dynamic that made Uniontown’s development possible was removing tolls from the Navy Yard Bridge.

According to journalist-researcher Steve Ackerman, writing for the Surratt House Museum, “Over time, Maryland’s legislature stridently prodded Congress to remove the tolls on the Eastern Branch bridges, to benefit ‘persons who frequent the markets of Washington and Georgetown, for the sale of their productions’ by removing the ‘heavy tax in the form of bridge tolls on their produce’” as an 1844 resolution in the Maryland legislature stated. In 1852 Congress bought the bridge and removed the tolls, freeing up back and forth movement for both merchants and residents.

Navy Yard Bridge, c. 1862. Photo by Matthew Brady from the Library of Congress.

As the area awaits residential and commercial revitalization, smart money reportedly has their eyes on Anacostia, invoking the area’s history as a key selling point.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming Frederick Douglass’ Washington: The Lion of Anacostia, to be published by The History Press on October 9th.

Besides the books and other resources listed above, planning guides and preservation studies also help tell the area’s history, such as those published by the University of Maryland that analyze the area’s housing stock, Old Anacostia Washington, DC: A Study of Community Preservation Resources and Design Guide for the Exterior Rehabilitation of Buildings in Old Anacostia.

Two additional publications by the city from the 1970s-era of Home Rule are Revitalization of old Anacostia: a neighborhood analysis and Washington’s far Southeast 70. Since then dissertations and theses have focused on Anacostia but haven’t been widely read or seen.