EARLY DAYS HERE
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 19, 1909 [p. 15]
The fact that at the mouth of the Tiber, where 17th street terminated at the water's edge, the Commissioners constructed a wharf, where much of the material used in the construction of the President's house and public buildings was landed, and that the cottage of Davy Burns, the original proprietor of the land thereabouts, was close at hand, made some of the early property holders and the officers of the corporation optimistic as to immediate development.
Seventeenth street, forming the west boundary of reservation 1, the site of the Presidenth's house and other public buildings, became at an early day a thoroughfare to the wharf, but the grounds south of the White House below Pennsylvania and New York avenues were left in the open for forty years or more. A few zigzag roads to points east were worn, but most of it remained a waste until about 1850, when a plank fence was provided, and this, being whitewashed, gave the name of "White Lot" to that parcel of ground.
Up to this time there was at times small game found, and it is related that to the thirties, when work was slack in the departments, some of the clerks often tried their skill here and made amends to their chiefs by dividing the game.
Gen. Van Ness' Courtship
Gen. John P. Van Ness, then a member of Congress from New York, was the fortunate suitor, and after spending several years at the resideence near the southwest corner of 12th and D streets returned to the paternal homestead of Mrs. Van Ness, where about 1816 he had erected a palatial residence on the plans of B.H. Latrobe, then architect of the Capitol.
The place was modernized, laid out in gardens and walks, but the primeaval trees – noble oaks – were not disturbed. Their only daughter did not long enjoy the surroundings, but died at an early age, and Mrs. Van Ness withdrew from Washington society and devoted her time and means to charity. As first directress of the Washington City Orphan Asylum she was its principal patron and erected for it a fine building on H street between 9th and 10th streets, and the temporary quarters, on the west side of 7th street between H and I streets, were abandoned about 1818.
Scene of Children's Recreation
The grounds being an ideal place for the enjoyment of children, more than one outing was given for Sunday and day schools there. In the fifties the residence of Thomas E. Green was located there.
In the early days, within a few hundred yards of the departments, the place was a veritable country seat on the river and creek, for Virginia avenue and B street were not cut through, and not until the opening of the Washington section of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in the thirties did the blowing for the locks and the tinkle of the bells become familiar music. With the construction of the canal, through which boats were "locked" to canal or river, a bridge was constructed to the wharf and a tollhouse erected.
The Carbery Wharf
As late, however, as 1850, coal, flour and grain were shipped here, much coming by the canal, and there was a coal yard on the wharf and for many years thousands of bushels of sand were unloaded here. A coal yard on the wharf was established by a Mr. Derringer about 1840.
In that year M.E. Hersant of Amsterdam became the owner of subs 14 to 118, and part of 4, for $4,320.38, and six years later sold it to Baron Guillaume Hyde DeNeville for a nominal consideration, the latter being the French minister.
The square south, 172, was, in 1792, vested in the United States, and had been platted into twenty-eight lots fronting D, E, 17th and 18th streets. Though there was in the early days much activity in the transfers of title, and ground was appraised at 5 and 6 cents per foot, in the course of twenty-five years it became listed at 2 and 3 cents.
Some Early Transfers
In that year Samuel Lewis bought the corner lot, 24, at 17th and E streets, and here was located the family residence for over half a century. He was one of the original clerks of the War Department and later in the second auditor's office until his death in the late forties. With the exception of the Van Ness family, this was the oldest in this section, consisting of a large number of children, among whom were Maj. Lewis, who became a well known printer, and several who were later carpenters and builders.
An Extensive Garden
Twenty lots fronting 17th and 18th, C and D streets, were platted in square 173, and in 1792 assigned to M. Burnes. In 1802 Isaac Pollock, in his purchase of $10,000 worth of lots from Burnes' daughter, included lots 20 to 22, at 17th and D streets, and lot 2 on C street. Having improved property in other sections, development was expected to follow, but it did not materialize.
The ground was listed at 4 and 5 cents originally, and in twenty years the value of 5 to 8 cents was reached.
In 1818 Col. Thomas Carbery bought of Van Ness part of lot 1, corner of C and 17th streets, 63 by 54-1/2 feet, and George Boyd the 12 feet north on 17th street and here Col. Carbery made his home for very many years.
Mayor of Washington
He erected a substantial brick residence as his home and it was listed at $2,500 valuation. In 1831 he added lots 2 and 3, giving him over 160 feet front on C street, much of which was included in orchard and garden. In 1821 John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, bought lots 20 to 22 and parts 1 and 2, 16,000 feet, for $2,571.23 and erected a house valued at $1,200. Newton Berryman, a clerk, lived here in the twenties and Capt. John Peabody, father of the ex-Fire Chief Peabody, was here in the forties.
In the Burnes or Van Ness square, heretofore described, now the site of the Bureau of American Republic building, the old mansion was listed in 1830 at $18,000, and the ground about 10 cents per foot. John P. Hilton was the collector at the canal locks. John Ousley, a gardener at the White House, was a resident there in the fifties.