While sifting through the virtual archives of some local publications, I came across an incident from 1947 that stood apart. Unlike most news, the event read like a Film Noir. This real-life tale was juicy enough to make headlines for days, suspenseful enough to make me wonder about motives, and hard-boiled enough to speak volumes to the disenchantment of the people involved. So, this article will look a little different from what we usually do at Boundary Stones. Rather than presenting the facts in a linear, scholarly manner, we have decided that this story shines best as a piece of narrative nonfiction. While every sentence is grounded in research, we held off on footnotes to let the story breathe, and took a few creative liberties to bring the characters to life. For variety, my dear reader, is the spice of life…
Today, you may know the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal best as a destination for outdoor activities, roaring waterfalls and historic lockhouses (which can be rented, thanks to the Canal Quarters Lockhouse Program!) But, the C&O Canal has a history with more twists and turns than the route of the canal itself. One of the most interesting chapters in C&O history was from 1938-1942, when two all-Black Civilian Conservation Corps companies worked to refurbish the decaying canal.
As a centuries-old legend has it, three young women attempted to cross the Potomac River late one night. They drowned in a horrific storm, however, and marked the place of their deaths with a cluster of rocks: the Three Sisters Islands. Today's kayakers and canoe paddlers may not feel the dread of the three sisters' curse, but their final promise may explain D.C.'s failure to build a bridge over these islands. If we cannot cross the river here, then nobody else ever will. The unbuilt Three Sisters Bridge played a crucial role in mid-20th century politics, especially the subway vs. freeway debates that would determine the future of transit in the nation's capital.
The price of public transportation in D.C. is rising and people are angry. Although this statement could accurately describe the present time, let’s turn back the clock to 1965.
D.C. Transit had just announced plans to raise bus fares and one man wasn’t having it. This man was Marion Barry, who would go on to become mayor of D.C., serving four terms. But Barry wasn’t mayor yet. He was a relatively new resident in D.C., having moved here to open up a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry saw the bus company’s raised rates as a direct hit to low income people in the District, who were mostly African American.
Just within sight of the Washington Monument is a little stone house not open to the public. Used for National Park Service storage today, this house is the last remnant of one of the biggest mistakes in municipal planning in the District’s history: the Washington City Canal.
The canal was first conceived of by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He envisioned something grand like, well, the Grand Canal at Versailles. George Washington thought the canal was a good idea because it would increase commerce by bringing goods directly into the city center.
But, right from the beginning, the proposed canal was plagued with problems.
When Union Station opened in 1907, the white granite Beaux-Arts train terminal designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham set a new standard for District's monumental architecture, setting the stage for landmarks such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Federal Triangle, the Supreme Court Building and the National Gallery of Art. The $25 million project was inspired by classical Roman architecture--the Baths of Diocletian and Caraculla and the triumphal Arch of Rome--and incorporated flourishes such as Ionic columns, chiseled inscriptions. Niches that held carved figures representing fire, electricity, agriculture and mechanics. Inside, the main hall, with its dramatic barrel vault and ornate plaster ceiling. It all created a feeling of grandeur that reflected the economic power and prestige of the rail companies--the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltmore and Ohio Railroad--which had erected it.
But by the mid-1960s, the railroads' fortunes had faded, and they were eager to unload Union Station, and there was talk of demolishing it.
In the 1940s, Jim Crow held strong in Arlington, Virginia. African-Americans encountered discrimination at segregated eating establishments, businesses and recreation facilities. Even access to medical care was divided along racial lines.
African American mothers were barred from the maternity ward at Arlington Hospital and were expected to travel to hospitals in Washington, D.C. or Alexandria to give birth. For many black Arlingtonians, getting to D.C. was difficult – especially in a medical emergency – as many could not afford cars of their own.
In 1947, three men with bright ideas and business ingenuity stepped up to fill the void.
For those of us who are nostalgic or liked to play with model trains when we were kids, today marks a rather inauspicious anniversary. Fifty-two years ago, on January 28, 1962, Washington's original streetcar system road the rails for the final time. That last run ended 99 and a half years of service to the nation's capital as buses replaced the trolleys as the primary means of mass transit in the District. So, how did we get to that point?
After going electric in the last decade of the 19th century, the streetcars quickly became a crucial part of transportation in the nation's capital, just as they were in other cities across the country. But Washington's system — which gradually coalesced from a hodgepodge of small companies into a single entity, the sprawling Capital Transit Co. in 1933 — faced special problems.