Photo by DreamCity4IFE on Flickr.
The streets of historic Anacostia have a hidden history that reveals insights into its unique character and place in the larger narrative of the city and even the nation.
After mortally wounding President Lincoln on the evening of April
18 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in downtown Washington, John Wilkes Booth escaped on horseback, crossing the Navy Yard Bridge, now the 11th Street Bridge, where he came to Harrison Street, now Good Hope Road.
Booth galloped through what was then known as the new subdivision of Uniontown up Harrison Street to the intersection with Marlboro Road, now Naylor Road. He then rode one and a third miles east on Marlboro Road into Maryland, where he would continue his escape into Virginia.
Good Hope Road’s role in one of the greatest tragedies in American history is understandably not celebrated today, but it is a footnote that connects today’s everyday life of walking the main streets of Anacostia with a past that pre-dates the Civil War.
With methods of transportation changing from horses to street cars to personal automobiles, there were increased demands for the continual improvement of the streets and roadways.
In an August 1898 article from The Times, under “Commissioners’ Orders” there is a brief note reading:
The District Commissioners issued the following orders yesterday: That Nicholas Avenue, from Stickfoot Branch to within 100 feet of the Government Hospital of the Insane, be repaired at an estimated cost of $1,300, chargeable to the appropriation for repairs of roads.
That the following work be done, chargeable to the appropriation for paving Harrison Street from the Navy Yard Bridge eastward. Relocate basin on west side of Harrison Street eighteen feet south of south rail of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, so that it will be 10 feet from rail; estimated cost, $50. Relocate basin at the intersection of the east curb of Monroe Street and south curb of Harrison Street; estimated cost, $75. Relocate basin on south side of Harrison Street 285 feet east of east curb of Monroe Street, estimated cost, $50. Relocate basin on the north side of Harrison Street opposite Fillmore Street; estimated cost, $25.
Old street names
The presidential-themed street names appeared with the planning of the Uniontown subdivision. Charles Burr writes in the 1920 records of the Columbia Historical Society:
Uniontown was between the fork created by the Upper Marborough road and the Piscataway road. To the thoroughfare eastward a part of the Marlborough road, was given the name Harrison Street and to the thoroughfare southward a part of the Piscataway road was given the name Monroe Street. The other streets of Uniontown were named in honor of the Presidents.
Uniontown was bounded by Monroe Street (Nichols Avenue, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue) on the west, Harrison Street (Good Hope Road) on the north, Taylor Street (16th Street) on the east, and Jefferson Street (W Street) on the south. The other streets were also named after presidents: Fillmore Street (13th Street), Pierce Street (14th Street), Adams Street (15th Street), Jackson Street (U Street), and Washington Street (V Street).
“The presidential names were changed in 1908 for use in other parts of town, and the usual numbered and alphabetical designation made Anacostia’s street names consistent with the city-wide scheme,” writes Thomas Cantwell in the early 1970s records of the Columbia Historical Society.
The other main historic thoroughfare in Anacostia is the three and a half mile Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue that extends from Good Hope Road all the way through southeast and southwest where it ends near the Bald Eagle Recreation Center.
Construction of Asylum Road, named for the manner in which it ran past the new Government Insane Asylum, which would later come to be known as Saint Elizabeths, began in the 1850s.
The road’s name was changed to Nichols Avenue in the 1870s after Henry Nichols, the superintendent of Saint Elizabeths from 1852 to 1877. The hill on which the campus sits came to be known as Asylum Hill.
“It was a lovely day, and his car went up Asylum Hill without an effort, which made him think of the old bicycle days of 40 years ago, when many of the strongest riders found it convenient to dismount when half way up the hill,” wrote John Clagett Proctor in an article in The Sunday Star from the first half of the 20th century.
In January 1971, the DC Council, with the approval of neighborhood residents, passed legislation changing the name of Nichols Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The City Council used the renaming of Nichols Avenue to petition and urge Congress to declare Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s birthday a national holiday.
Today’s street names
On Sunday, September 27, 1908, The Washington Times ran an article under the headline, “Wouldn’t It Make You Peevish to Have Street Names Changed in a Night? Congress Forgets To Heed Requests.”
Since the memory of the oldest inhabitants runneth not to the contrary,” the author wrote, “Anacostia has prided itself on its high sounding street names. George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, all of them were there.
“Ah, ha!” said Congress, “Here’s a bunch of high-sounding statesmanlike names in use out there at Anacostia. What if they have been doing business for about sixty years and are a little shop-worn. We’ll transfer them over to Mt. Pleasant, our thriving fashionable suburb, and send a bunch of letters and figures over Anacostia way to be distributed wherever there’s an empty space.
Following which ukase, a benevolent ladder climber from the District building came over and tore down William Henry Harrison, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and a few others, and decorated the lamp posts 13, 17, W, X, Y, Z, or any other old letter he drew out of the bag.
The alphanumeric-named street grid in today’s Anacostia can be seen in review of Volume 4 of 1927 Baist’s Real Estate Atlas available for public research at the Historical Society of Washington at 801 K Street NW. Further research on the old street names both east and west of the river can be done at the Martin Luther King Library’s Washingtoniana Division at 901 G Street NW and the Library of Congress.
A version of this article will run in April’s East of the River.