In Old Washington
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, October 17, 1908 [p. 8]
A residence, the scene of many society events of old, where high officials and noted statesmen were wont to gather; another fine dwelling which later became noted for its annex, the leading "nigger jail" or "Georgia pen," and a prolific garden which supplied the tables of the Indian Queen, now Metropolitan Hotel, in the first half of he past century were the features of that portion of Washington between 7th, 9th, B and D streets.
Within these lines, Maryland and Virginia avenues intersecting, a large space, duplicating Mt. Vernon square, the seat of he Washington Library, was planned for a park. But for no such purpose was it improved., For a long time was it the open commons which ook in adjacent streets and squares platted for building purposes.
The lay of the land was nearly level, but the slight undulations made the formation of one or two shallow ponds possible after heavy rainfalls; the largest near the northeast corner of he space. It had been in the fields of Notley Young and David Burns, and but few trees were standing when settlement came.
The improvement of streets was not apace with private enterprise. Country conditions existed long. With the exception of wagon tracks in 7th street and along Maryland avenue to 11th street, which was part of the link in the great southern mail route and well worn, there was next to nothing done in street improvement till 1850, and sparingly then. Notwithstanding, in the thirties there was some settlement about the corner o f7th and D streets and some years before had two fine houses been erected, one at C and 8th streets and one near B and 8th streets. A well worked garden had been located in a square. All else was in the open.
The space adjoining 7th street, as the population of the "Island" increased, became the rallying point in political campaigns. Quadrennially were the names of the candidates floated to the breeze, the hickory pole bearing those of the democrats and the pine mast the whigs.
Across this space from 7th to 11th streets was the scene of some animated racing during he Mexican War. The telegraph was then new, having its office above the city post office on 7th street between E and F streets and lines northward. Communication southward was by mail and the boats formed the connection with Potomac or Aquia Creek, Va.
Daily Race of News Men
Their messengers were Robert Ball and James Pumphrey. Daily at the wharf they came, mounted on the fastest horses obtainable. Each an expert rider and light of weight, they were about evenly matched.
The dispatches were fastened to a stick and thrown off before landing was made. When secured by the messenger an exciting race for the telegraph operator would occur.
It was not long before this arrangement was known. Hundreds were accustomed to gather on the route and encourage their favorites with "Go it, Jim," "Hurrah for Bob," etc.
The stretch in Maryland avenue with the turn at 7th street was usually lined. It is needless to say that the sporting fraternity was represented and bets were made. There never was a suspicion of any unfairness. That each rider did his best was evident from the steeds often running neck and neck, which gave the riders an even chance to the foot of the steps to the office.
Each of the four squares has its own story and the first which came into use was that between B, C, 7th and 8th streets, No. 433, about 1816, later achieving some notoriety as the site of the principal slave pen in the District. It was laid out into eight lots on the original plan, which were apportioned in 1796, lots 1, 6 to 8, the east half of the square to the United States and the west half, lots 2 to 5, to Daniel Carroll. The northeast quarter lots 6 and 7 in 1799 were owned by John Francis Mercer of Maryland, a representative and afterward governor, and the southeast quarter lots 1 and 8 by Margaret Sprigg. No improvements are noted; the ground in 1802 is appraised at 3 cents per foot and later at half that amount, rising in twenty years to 5 cents.
In 1814 Tench Ringgold, then marshal of the District, bought lot 5, the northwest corner of the square, and the next year Thomas Munroe, then superintendent of the city and postmaster, bought this lot and lot 4 south, one-fourth of the square. On this he erected the two-story basement and attic brick building fronting 8th street, which was listed for $2,000 and the ground at 6 and 8 cents in the thirties. There grew about this part of the square a number of trees which gave it the name of Locust grove; and for very many years was the square inclosed, this being the only building upon it, and much was used as a garden.
In the twenties Henry Hillman lived here and in the early thirties the well known James Maher, long the public gardener and for years the proprietor of the Western Hotel. It afterward became noted as the slave pen.
Where Slaves Were Kept
In the corner of Maryland avenue and 7th street were buried the bodies of those whose freedom came by death visiting the pen, a simple pine box being the casket.
An old native of the section is wont to relate how he was frightened, when he was a boy, seeing two colored men lower a white box in the ground and cover it up. He asked what they were burying. Told it was a bugaboo, he was scared off, and for years afterward nothing could induce him to pass the corner after dark.
The character of the place seemed to affect the neighborhood, for there was more than one adventure with footpads nearby.
About 1840 George Milburn, returning one night to his home, was attacked near 7th and B streets and robbed of watch and money. So badly injured was he that death followed soon afterward. Later two young men, one carrying a large sum of money, were overhauled in the same place by two ruffians. They were not searched and were allowed to go, a $10,000 prize being missed.
While, until 1854, the records are silent as to improvements, it is known that a house had been erected near the corner of 7th street and Maryland avenue, for at that time J.E. Baker conveyed such to C.C. Baker. Afterward A. Holmead had a store on this corner, and Hughes' flower garden was at B and 7th streets, down to the civil war.
Square 434, between 7th, 8th, C and D streets, was laid off for six lots each on C and D streets. It was in Young's tract, and in the division went to the United States, and was included in the contract with Mr. Greenleaf in 1794.. Three cents per foot was the corporation value in 1802, and it gradually rose to 8 and 10 cents. In 1818 William A. Bradley, then the cashier of the Bank of Washington, bought the whole square, paying 8 cents per foot, $3,401.29l. Here he erected, fronting C street, the fine residence which the corporation taxed for a value of $4,500.
This during the residence of the Bradleys was a noted place for years. Mr. Bradley was one of the leading citizens of Washington, with an extensive acquaintance with public men, an intimate personal friend of Henry Clay, Webster and other Whig leaders, connected with many business enterprises, including the mail service, and was well versed in local municipal affairs, reaching the mayoralty in 1834.
For some years Mr. Bradley was city postmaster. Mr. Bradley later moved and John Y. Mason of Virginia, who in President Tyler's and Polk's administrations was the Secretary of the Navy, took the house and made his home here some years. The family was a large one, of ten children, and with the retinue of servants necessary to keep up the establishment it became noted for the hospitality dispensed at the numerous entertainments which long were remembered as most brilliant society functions.
Bought by Holy Cross Sisters
In 1829 others than the Bradley family came here. In 1829 John C. Drummond and G.W. Brook bought in the southeast quarter of the square, and the next year Robert Leckie and Phineas Bradley bought lots in the east half of the square. Some improvements followed on 7th street. Mr. Drummond erected the home in which he was succeeded by his son Noah, also in business as a carpenter. William Baker lived on C street, Theodore Jones and E. Howard on 7th street, and at the corner of 7th and C streets Thomas Crown, brother-in-law to Leckie, opened a grocery, in which he was engaged till about 1842, then moving to a farm on the railroad near Annapolis, and opened a general store, the Crownsville of the present. W.G. Howison continued the grocery business at 7th and C streets, which in recent years has been "Boswell's corner," designating the drug business there. In the forties John Phillips was on C street and William Cropley, printer; Charles Poor, John C. Cook, William Burch and A.G. Atkinson on 7th street.
What was designated as square 409, between 8th, 9th, B and C streets in the beginning lay in both the Burnes and Young tracts. here were eight lots plotted, and the division was made between Mr. Carroll and the government. In 1800 lot 1, the southeast corner of the square, was bought by W.S. Chandler, and 7 and 8, through Solomon Etting, passed to Samuel Blodgett. In 1803 Thomas Turner owned lot 6, on B street, and in 1804 Dr. William Thornton acquired lots 7 and 8 at marshal's sale.
For twenty years following if the square was of more use than for taxable purposes there is nothing to show it on title records. From 3 cents per foot had the ground value been reduced one-half and risen to 4 cents. In 1824 Jesse Brown, the proprietor of the Indian Queen Hotel, which was succeeded by the Metropolitan, leased the west half of the square and afterward bought the fee simple title with that of he remainder of the square. This was used fofr gardening, William Murray being in charge, and much of he produce was specially raised for the hotel tables. In the thirties the ground was appraised at 6 cents per foot and a house listed to Mr. Brown at $800 value.
Uneventful is the ancient history of square 410 between 8th, 9th, C and D streets. The sixteen lots in 1797 were vested in Mr. Young and the same year Jacobus Merson acquired them. In 1802 these were listed as of 3 cents value, but at the next appraisement were reduced to half that rate. In 1830 5 cents was the value and two years later the square passed into the hands of Henry T. Weightman and John F. Webb. Some years later Mrs. E. Jones was the solitary occupant of the square living on the C street front.