Here to return to
ROUNDABOUT THE NATION’S CAPITAL
THE District of Columbia at first included a tract on each side of the Potomac, but that on the southern side was later relinquished, and the present District has an area of sixty-nine square miles. It has been the seat of government since 1800. At the end of the first decade it had a population of eight thousand and for a long time grew very slowly. Even down to 1870 the city was in a very backward condition, but since then improvement has been rapid, till now it is one of the most comfortable and beautiful in the world. Both in itself and in its surroundings it is superlatively interesting. To be sure it is a made-to-order place that was carefully and formally planned at the very start, and this has inevitably resulted in its losing some of the piquancy that a more harum-scarum growth would have given it. Moreover, it still has a little of the aspect of a boy in clothes purposely made too large for him in order to provide for his prospective increase in stature — that is, the city as a whole does not yet match up to its splendid public buildings, and the amplitude of its parks, and the breadth of its avenues. But its rawness in this respect is now only incidentally apparent, though formerly it was a perfect scarecrow and was called the “City of Magnificent Distances,” its framework seemed so unnecessarily large for any prospective growth. The phrase continues in use but gradually has come to be applied in a praiseworthy sense as indicating the width of the city streets and the spaciousness of the parks and squares.
The prosperity of the city depends on the fact that here are the government offices and the meeting-place of Congress. There are probably forty thousand army and navy officers and civil servants in Washington, and these with their families make a large proportion of the population.
Of the government buildings the Capitol is very fittingly the most imposing in size. It is no less impressive in its grace of design and situation, and it is set amid grounds whose extent and arrangement add much to its architectural effect. With the crowning glory of its great dome it is surpassingly beautiful, no matter whence you see it. The main building with its original low-crowned dome was completed in 1827, and the wings and the present dome about forty years later. It covers three and a half acres and is on a hill ninety feet above the level of the Potomac.
On this same height is the Library of Congress, a building capable of accommodating four or five million volumes, and of special interest to the sightseer because of its sumptuous adornments of painting, sculpture, colored marbles, and gilding. These are often not all they might be in conception, execution, or arrangement, but the effect as a whole is decidedly imposing.
The White House, a trifle over a mile distant down the straight, wide Pennsylvania Avenue, is as satisfying as the Capitol in its stately simplicity, and its generous grounds, seventy-five acres in extent. This was the first public building erected at the new seat of government. George Washington himself selected the site. He laid the cornerstone in 1792 and lived to see the building completed. During Madison’s administration it was burned by marauding British soldiers, but the stone walls remained standing, and when it was restored the stone was painted white to obliterate the marks of the fire. It has commonly been known as the White House ever since.
Near by is the treasury building, as if under the special guardianship of the president, with the expectation that he would protect the garnered wealth of the people from the spendthrift inroads of Congress which meets in the Capitol.
The vast structures necessary for carrying on the nation’s business abound on every hand, but, aside from the Capitol and the White House, the most widely-famed architectural feature of the city is the Washington Monument. I fancy its fame is chiefly due to its tremendous height, for it is an absolutely unornamented, tapering marble shaft, more severely plain than a factory chimney. The obelisk was begun in 1848, but work on it was presently abandoned and was not resumed until 1877. It was finished in 1884. From the floor to the tip it soars up 555 feet, and until certain recent skyscrapers in New York were erected it was the highest work of masonry in the world. It can be ascended either by a fatiguing climb of its nine hundred steps or by elevator. The walls are fifteen feet thick at the entrance, but gradually thin to eighteen inches at the top. It cost over a million dollars. The immensity of the monument is only fully appreciated when one stands right at its base, but it is seen to best advantage from an island park that borders the adjacent Potomac.
This park is a favorite resort of fisherman. I have seen them there before five o’clock on a summer morning, and only a storm, or darkness when the day comes to an end, sends them home. Carp seemed to be the fish most commonly caught, and some of these that the anglers secured were surprisingly big fellows.
Across the river on the Virginia hills, within sight of the city, is the Arlington National Cemetery, and any one with a belligerent inclination to settle disputes between countries, or between masses of people in the same country, by resorting to war would do well to visit this spot where most of the graves are those of the silent hosts who died in the war for the Union. The headstones stretch away in seemingly endless lines, for here lie buried sixteen thousand men, and this field of the dead is only one of many that the Civil War filled with the soldiers who succumbed to either bullets or disease. Among the various monuments probably the most impressive is that inscribed to the Unknown Dead. The letters chisled on the granite inform the onlookers that “Beneath this stone repose the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers gathered after the war from the fields of Bull Run and the route to the Rappahannock.” In the southern part of the cemetery are buried the sailors who lost their lives at Havana in the blowing up of the Maine.
Within the limits of the cemetery, on the brow of the hill that slopes away to the Potomac, a half mile distant, is the fine old mansion that was the home of Robert E. Lee when the Civil War began.
But the most interesting home in the vicinity of the Capitol is that of George Washington at Mount Vernon, sixteen miles to the south. It is easily accessible by trolley. The intervening country is rather commonplace, except that half way you pass through quaint old Alexandria with its cobblestone streets and numerous ancient buildings.
Mount Vernon itself is a paradise. It suggests the home of an English country gentleman of large estate and refined tastes. The house is large, serene, dignified, and looks down from a steep, terraced hill on the lordly Potomac. Everything is on a generous scale — there is unstinted lawn about the dwelling, and many venerable trees, and there is a big garden abounding in ornamental hedgerows and flowers in their season.
At the Alexandria waterside
The interior of the house is less delightful than the exterior; for it is a formal showplace in which the imagination finds it difficult to restore the animation of life. Nevertheless, as a museum of articles connected with the life of the Father of his Country, and illustrative of well-to-do household appointments of the colonial period, it is extremely valuable.
The house was built in 1743 by Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence. When you observe it close at hand you become aware that its wooden sides are dominoed to imitate stone, a pretense that one can not help regretting in a building that otherwise is so admirable. Lawrence died, and Washington at length inherited the property. He came here to live and carry on the farm soon after his marriage in 1759. During the Revolution and his presidency of the new republic Mount Vernon saw little of him, but on his retirement from public office he came back to his farm, and it was in the beautiful old mansion beside the Potomac that he died in 1799, and his remains repose in a tomb in a quiet nook of the grounds.
In this desultory account of the Capitol and its vicinity I only attempt to deal with a few salient features, but I would include among these, because of its picturesqueness, a canal that comes into the city from the west, high up on the north bank of the Potomac, and descends to the river by a series of locks. Just above the locks is a place where the boats tie up to await their turn for unloading. Sometimes a boat will be there a week or ten days before it can proceed.
Usually a sail-cloth awning is put up to protect the cabin from the hot sunshine, and a plank is adjusted to serve for passing to and from the shore. The mules on the bank are tied to feed boxes built there for their accommodation. It is a sort of amphibian gypsy encampment. Coal is the ordinary cargo, and the boats commonly go back light to the mines in the Cumberland Mountains.
Another feature of the Washington vicinity that appealed strongly to me was the Great Falls of the Potomac, fifteen miles by electric line from the city. The route is in the woods much of the way, and you see little of the river, and nothing of the falls until you reach your destination. Then you pass through a pleasure resort grove, and there are the falls before you. The pavilions and other buildings of the amusement park are back out of sight among the trees, and the artificial music of the merry-go-round cannot be heard, so much more powerful is nature’s music of the roaring waters. The river channel is a chaos of jagged ledges amid which the stream has worn various tortuous channels, and the water surges down through the rocks in a smother of white waves, and then makes a sudden leap to a lower level. In floods the rocks are buried from sight, and the river tears along in a wild torrent that fills the narrow chasm below and obliterates the falls entirely. Above the rapids is a dam, but it is low and unobtrusive, and one sees the falls almost as much in a state of nature as when the aborigines possessed the country. Indeed, I met one enthusiastic onlooker who declared that because of its unspoiled scenic setting the Potomac Falls was superior to Niagara.
Besides the pleasure-seekers from Washington, who come to listen to the melody of the waters and watch their mad struggle down the rocky channel, there were quite a number of local farmers, who had resorted thither to fish for shad in the swift rush of the stream just below the falls. Here they have come ever since the region was settled, and no doubt it was a fishing-place of the Indians for untold years before that. The rocks in the steep ravines where the fishermen descend to the stream are worn smooth with the footsteps of those who have toiled up and down, and bear mute testimony to the attraction of the spot. You find the fishers busy on both sides of the river. They are armed with long-handled scoopnets, and dip and dip from the several points of vantage, making a slow sweep down stream. The rocks do not furnish many footholds suitable for the task, and at each dipping-place there is pretty sure to be a group of fishermen waiting their turn. A few townsmen also come to fish, but they use pole and line, and instead of shad they get occasional cat fish and sun fish.
I clambered down a gulley and joined one of the scoopnet squads. In the intervals between fishing they retired from the water’s edge and sat in a shadowed spot on the rocks talking, chewing tobacco, and spitting. Rubbish and fishscales were scattered about, and it was no more savory in its odors than are most fishing-places.
One of the fishermen was a thin, spectacled old man, very quaintly rustic, with long white hair hanging in ringlets about his shoulders. This patriarch was the acknowledged scoopnet champion. To quote one of his companions — “He knows just how to do it, and he’s mo’ likely to get shad than any of us. Uncle Jim was an old fisherman when I was a boy, forty odd years ago, and he’s caught mo’ shad in this river than all the rest of the crowd here put together. Oh, my, yes! yes indeed! He never does anything else but fish in the fishin’ season, and he can make a livin’ and a half at it. He’ll be here every day for the next month.
“This is as far as the shad go up the river. They can’t get over the falls. It’s heavy exercise handling a scoopnet, but we don’t keep at it continuous. Every man follers around and takes his turn. He dips a hundred dips, which takes about fifteen minutes. I believe Uncle Jim was the starter of that plan in his young days. If we get suspicious that a feller is not stopping when he ought to stop, some one sits back and counts to make sure whether he’s cheating or not. I see a big fight about that one day over where them men are fishin’ on the rocks opposite. But mostly those who scoop for shad are neighbors who live right around, and they are all honest.
At the fishing-place
“Once in a while we scoop up a carp here, and it’s a tolerable good fish if it’s cooked right. You want to boil it with a little vinegar in the water. Then it tastes first-rate, but it’s a very rich fish, and while it does well enough for a mess or two you soon get sick of ‘em. Take shad though, and its good any old way. The only fault you can find is that it has a whole lot of bones, and them bones are stiff, too.
“Hurrah! Uncle Jim’s got one.”
There was a general shout of congratulation from the group, and we could hear the faint cheers of the men across the river, who had likewise observed Uncle Jim’s success. A man in our group scrambled down and took the flopping, silvery captive from the meshes, and Uncle Jim, after one exultant smile, stolidly resumed his wielding of the scoopnet, and only stopped when he had finished his hundred dips. Then he gave way to the next man and came up the rocks, got out his knife, and dressed the shad.
“The scales are right loose when the fish is first taken from the water,” he explained, “but they get tight if you let the fish dry. Shad are a pretty fish, ain’t they, they look so nice and white? When I get enough of ‘em to make it worth while, I take out the backbone and salt ‘em up so they’ll keep till they’re wanted. They’re a whole lot better that way than fresh. But we don’t scoop many here now. We used to get a thousand to one that we ketch late years.”
“Hello, Joe! caught any?”
This greeting was to a new arrival.
“No,” Joe responded, “I been down to the riffle. Two was caught there, but I did n’t get either of ‘em.”
“The water’s too muddy,” Uncle Jim commented. “It was cl’ar early in the week, but every rain muddies it.”
I asked him if he could see the shad before he scooped them when the water was clear.
“No,” he replied, “muddy or not, we never can see down into the water enough to have any idee whether we’re goin’ to get a fish till the net brings it to the surface.”
The day was waning, and I at length climbed back up the rocks, marvelling that so primitive a scene as is presented at the Great Falls of the Potomac in early summer should be found within an hour’s trolley journey of the big modern city of Washington, the nation’s capital.
NOTES. — Climatically Washington is most delightful in May or October. If possible, be there when Congress is in session and see the Senate and the House of Representatives at work.
Some of the features of the city not mentioned in the body of this chapter, yet which have exceptional attraction, are the Botanic Gardens; National Museum; Smithsonian Institute; the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where visitors can see paper money, bonds, and stamps in the process of manufacture; the Corcoran Gallery of Art; Ford’s Theatre on loth Street, where President Lincoln was shot, and the house opposite to which he was carried to die, and which contains a collection of Lincoln relics; and the Union Railway Station, which in size and architectural charm is a fitting companion to the best of the government buildings.
Automobile routes radiate in all directions, but many of the roads are very poor. The road to Mt. Vernon, for instance, is so bad that it is well to make the trip by trolley, or, better still, by boat. One can, however, motor to Alexandria, 10 miles, without great discomfort, though the dirt road is very rough. At Alexandria, which at one time aspired to be the nation’s capitol, the traveller should visit the wharves and the marketplace, see the Marshall House where Colonel Ellsworth, the first man to die in the Civil War, was killed, and go into Christ Church where Washington and General Robert E. Lee used to worship.
There is a good macadam road to Great Falls, 15 miles. Half way it crosses Cabin John Creek by a bridge that has a span of 220 feet and, with one exception, is the longest stone arch bridge in the world. It was built to carry the Washington Acqueduct. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War at that time, and his name was cut into one of the stones. When he became president of the Confederacy his name was chiseled off, but many years afterward it was restored by order of President Roosevelt. The water supply of Washington comes from above the Falls.