Main Street Of America


By the end of the ten-year period allotted by Congress for the creation of the city, Pennsylvania Avenue was little more than a clearing in the landscape. Of the city’s 372 private houses—109 of brick and 263 of wood—scarcely a dozen faced the avenue, and most of these were on the north side. A few lots on the south side had been cleared as lumberyards, but as the ground there was low, wet, and swampy, it was not an appealing building site. At high tide the waters of the Tiber came to within twenty-five feet of the avenue itself, and storms regularly brought the water clear across it. Receding, the river left catfish in the puddles. When the tide was low, small boys waded about in the Tiber, looking for turtle nests on its reedy banks. Rabbits and squirrels abounded. When the birds were migrating, there were so many wild ducks in the swamps that a person standing on Pennsylvania Avenue might bring one down with a stone. The Mall was a pasture generally known as the Commons; people had already forgotten that it was supposed to be, in the words of L’Enfant, “a public walk … that will give to the city from the very beginning a superior charm over most of those of the world.” Certainly it is a measure of the optimism of Federal America, as well as of the persuasiveness of its leaders, that by 1800 more than 2,500 citizens called this unpromising village home.

In May of that year the official building period was over; and whether Washington, D.C., was ready or not, the federal government was coming. President John Adams travelled from Philadelphia by coach, taking eight days on the road. The 131 government clerks, and various cabinet members, along with the archives and office paraphernalia, arrived by sloop—down the Delaware River to the ocean, thence up Chesapeake Bay, and up the Potomac to the mouth of Rock Creek. Most of the new arrivals, including the President, prudently left their families at home, for, as the entrepreneur Blodget had foreseen, the capital city was in dire need of lodginghouses. When Congress convened in November, the members were lucky if they slept only two to a room and not two to a bed. Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick was the only member of that first Washington session of Congress who found a bedroom to himself. A few members of Congress rented houses for their families in Georgetown; daily contact with them was impossible, however, for after a rain it took hours to ride or drive between Georgetown and Capitol Hill.

The scene around the Capitol was a dismal one. Albert Gallatin, then serving in Congress, thus described it in a letter to his wife: ”… seven or eight boarding houses, one tailor, one shoemaker, one printer, a washing woman, a grocery shop, a pamphlet and stationery shop, a small dry-goods shop and an oyster house.” Westward toward the unfinished President’s House he saw a gash through the alder bushes that was Pennsylvania Avenue; beside it, looking somewhat incongruous, rose the tinner’s and the coachmaker’s and two or three smaller houses.

Washington had purposely placed the Executive Mansion a mile away from Congress so that the President would not be annoyed by congressmen continually dropping in. With a sea of mud between them, there now seemed danger of their losing touch altogether. One of the first acts of the newly convened Congress was to vote $10,000 for making sidewalks on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Wide enough to accommodate two people walking abreast, they were made of chips from the stone blocks used to build the Capitol. People complained that the chips cut their shoes and covered them with white powder, and that on wet days the powder turned to ooze in which one might well lose a shoe. Even at that, pedestrians were better off than those who rode in hacks or coaches and were either splattered with mud, choked with dust, or upset by hidden tree stumps. Even the President’s lady, Abigail Adams, who arrived in the fall, was often delayed by mud when paying calls by coach. She described Washington as “a wilderness city,” but bravely added, “It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it the more I am delighted with it.” Tongue in cheek, Senator Gouverneur Morris termed Washington “the best city in the world for a future residence. We want nothing here but houses, cellars, kitchens, well informed men, amiable women, and other trifles of this kind, to make our city perfect.”

But now that the government had taken up its permanent residence, civic improvements began to move at a faster pace. The cost of lots was cut in half, which had the desired effect of stimulating new building. Stage lines, running north and south, made travel more agreeable. Occasionally there were dances and Marine Corps band concerts. A newspaper, the mark of a real city, began publication in the fall. It was called the National Intelligencer . In the winter of 1800–1801, Pennsylvania Avenue was cleared of stumps and bushes to its intended width of 160 feet. Still, not a few of the uncomfortable and homesick congressmen were convinced that the new city would never work, and they nearly succeeded in passing a resolution to move the government elsewhere. Fortunately for the city, the President inaugurated on March 4, 1801, was its greatest backer and enthusiast, Thomas Jefferson.