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Constitution Avenue Was a Canal: History of the Washington City Canal

Today, Constitution Avenue is one of Washington, DC’s major thoroughfares, bustling with traffic and flanked by some of the nation’s most iconic monuments and institutions. However, few may realize that this pivotal roadway was once a canal, playing a crucial role in the city’s early commerce and transportation network.

Learn about the history of the Washington City Canal, from its inception as part of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s grand design for the nation’s capital to its transformation into one of the city’s principal avenues, with plenty of historical maps and photographs.

L’Enfant’s Vision for Washington City

In the late 18th century, the need for a permanent seat of government in the United States led to the selection of a location along the Potomac River for its strategic and symbolic significance. George Washington, the country’s first president, tasked Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French-born American architect, with designing what would become the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. This commission was not just about creating a new city; it was about embodying the ideals of a new democracy.

L’Enfant’s vision for Washington City was ambitious and forward-thinking. He envisioned a city that would reflect the democratic ideals of the young nation, with wide, grand avenues radiating from significant buildings, such as the Capitol and the President’s House, to symbolize the importance of the government’s branches. The design included public squares and parks, intending for these spaces to be accessible to all citizens, thereby emphasizing the democratic principle of equality. L’Enfant’s plan was revolutionary, laying the groundwork for a capital city with a symbolic layout that prioritized open spaces, public accessibility, and visual grandeur.

One notable aspect of this vision was the transformation of Tiber Creek into a canal. L’Enfant planned to convert this natural creek, which traversed the city and emptied into the Potomac River, into a functional canal that would allow for transportation of goods into the heart of Washington City.

L’Enfant envisioned a network of waterways that would serve both functional and aesthetic purposes within the city. These canals were intended to both facilitate transportation and commerce, linking significant parts of the city with the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and provide public beautification

Although not the success originally envisioned, the inclusion of canals in his design highlights L’Enfant’s forward-thinking approach to urban planning, combining utility with the enhancement of public spaces.

Despite encountering controversies during the planning that eventually led to his ouster, L’Enfant’s blueprint for Washington, DC laid a solid foundation for the capital’s development. His dismissal did not diminish the impact of his vision, which continues to define the city’s layout. The broad avenues and public squares he envisioned remain central to Washington, DC’s identity.

Fundraising Challenges and Initial Construction

The construction of the canal was a mess. In order to build the canal, money needed to be raised. While today a public infrastructure project like this would be government funded, at the time, these were private enterprises that had investors.

An image of a historical Washington City Canal Lottery ticket from 1824. The ticket is decorated with intricate floral border designs, and text on the ticket states that it entitles the possessor to a potential prize in Lottery No. 1 for funding the construction of a canal through the city of Washington to the Eastern Branch Harbour.
Washington City Canal lottery ticket, signed by board member Notley Young. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Washington City Canal was permitted to raise funds through selling lottery tickets in 1795, and despite selling tickets, apparently no monies were collected and the tickets were sold on credit. The Washington Canal Company eventually was chartered by Congress in 1802, but financing continued to be a problem.

The canal company was run by a lot of the landowners in the eastern part of the city who wanted an easy way for goods to be delivered to them.

Washington City Canal Construction and Early Use

By 1808, part of the canal was cut from present day 17th Street NW to 6th Street NW along what is now Constitution Avenue NW. However, it was unusable, and a second canal company was chartered to take over the work. Work resumed on May 2, 1810 with President James Madison digging the first bit of earth before 6 workhorses drew a plough and cut the earth.

After many more stops and starts due to lack of funds as well as the War of 1812, the canal opened November 21, 1815, connecting the Potomac to the Anacostia via downtown DC.

Transporting heavy materials such as marble, stone, and coal meant easier and cheaper transport. Previously, ships would need to dock at Georgetown and the goods taken via horse and wagon into Washington City. Now with the canal, goods were able to move more quickly and at a cheaper rate.

Operational Challenges and Decline

However, the mistakes made while building the canal quickly surfaced. The Potomac is a tidal river, and the canals were affected by them as well.

Historic 1860 photograph capturing a view of the United States Capitol building with the unfinished dome. The image shows the Washington City Canal in the foreground, leading up to the Capitol, with its reflection visible in the water, and the Botanic Garden adjacent to it. A rustic pathway runs along the canal, and a few small buildings are scattered in the surrounding area.
1860 view of the Washington City Canal, Capitol building, and Botanic Garden. The canal has debris built up, making it difficult to pass. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

At high tide, the water frequently went over the canal walls. At low tide, the water was too low at spots to pass through due to the debris that accumulated. By 1817, deposits from the tide were making navigating the canal difficult. The canal also was not dug deep enough to support larger barges that were expected during initial planning.

The financial issues that plagued the canal during its building did not stop once it was open. Due to the canal company operating at a loss, they didn’t have the funds to make the meaningful improvements hat would reduce the amount of maintenance needed.

Transition to City Control and Continued Decline

Eventually, the city purchased the canal in 1832. This was the height of canal speculation, and the city had also pledged to purchase $1,000,000 in Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal stock, with Georgetown and Alexandria each pledging $250,000 as well in 1828.

In 1833, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal connection to the Washington City Canal opened, and brought large barges into the Washington City Canal. The lock master’s house that is still on the National Mall today was placed at the entrance of the C&O Canal.

Many municipalities were betting on canals being the future of transportation, but their dominance was immediately threatened. On the same day that the C&O Canal broke ground, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad also broke ground, servicing a very similar route. The canal investors couldn’t see it, but the days of canal supremacy were numbered.

The Fall of the Washington City Canal

Under city control, a number of improvements were made, but by 1855, boats could no longer pass through from one end to the other. The branch of the C&O Canal linking Georgetown to the Washington City Canal also was in decay. The fall of the canal has been blamed on city politics and corruption from contractors who were tasked with maintaining and improving the canal.

During the Civil War, the canal continued to deteriorate. Cows grazing around it would regularly fall into the canal and need to be rescued.

Congressional Intervention and the Canal’s End

After the Civil War was over, debates over what should be done with the canal restarted. Lawmakers wanted to do something for health and sanitary reasons. The canal had turned into an open air sewer, and there was debate over whether it could ever become a commercial success

Eventually, Congress agreed that they did not want to spend any more money on the failing canal. They also were not happy with how Washington was being run. The city had grown tremendously after the Civil War, but still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. Some wanted the capital to be moved due to the conditions.

Instead, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1871 that eliminated the patchwork of different municipal governments and united Washington City, Washington County, and Georgetown under a single, unified government. This was an achievement for political boss Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd and allies, who wanted to get rid of the elected officials and take power instead.

Detailed segment of an 1880 map showing the grid layout of streets and blocks in Washington D.C. near the U.S. Navy Yard. Notable features include labeled streets such as M Street S.E., South Carolina Avenue S.E., and numbered street blocks. The map also illustrates the filled-in canal area with diagonal shading, the U.S. Marine Barracks, and the boundaries of the Navy Yard with its buildings represented in black block shapes.
Map showing the progress of filling in the southern part of Washington City Canal in 1880. Green, black, and red shading indicates areas filled in, while blue indicates areas still open. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Shepherd was appointed to the Board of Public Works, and got to work building public improvements to modernize the city. One of those improvement was was to fill in the canal and turn it into a closed sewer. By 1880, the section running down Constitution Avenue and in front of the Capitol was filled in, as well as from the Capitol south to the parts of the canal south of that continued to be filled in up until 1930.

Conclusion

Stereograph image from the 1860s in sepia tone depicting the U.S. Capitol with its iconic dome, reflected in the central canal, and the surrounding landscape with bare trees and a small greenhouse, presenting a serene historical scene in Washington, D.C.
1860s photo of the Washington City Canal. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Once envisioned as a cornerstone of the capital’s infrastructure, the Washington City Canal ultimately succumbed to the practical realities of urban development and technological advancement. Its transition from a tidal creek to a vital commercial artery to a forgotten waterway under Constitution Avenue illustrates the dynamic interplay between history and progress.

Stereoscopic sepia photograph from 1865 showing the U.S. Capitol with a partially completed dome and the Botanic Garden greenhouse, with the Capitol reflected in the water of the Tiber Creek.
1865 photograph of Tiber Creek flowing into the canal. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

As residents and visitors travel down this busy street today, not many would think that a canal once flowed beneath them. Through understanding such transformations, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complex layers that contribute to the identity of Washington, DC, a city that continues to evolve while honoring its past.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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