Now and a Long Time Ago: Canal Towpath

Last week GM introduced a new series, “Now and a Long Time Ago”. It was a replacement for his old series “Not So Long Ago”. Unlike that other series, where GM compared photos of today with photos from 1993 (in order to show how much has changed in such a short amount of time), with the new series he’ll show how much has changed over a rather long time.

And today he stops by the canal towpath between Thomas Jefferson and 30th St.

The old photo is from the Library of Congress (where pretty much all the old photos are going to come from) and it was taken by Albert Burns October 1, 1935. The most striking difference is that nowadays there’s a rather large tree on the banks. Of course, when this was an active canal, any trees between the towpath and the canal would have been cut down because they would otherwise get in the way of the ropes.

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One response to “Now and a Long Time Ago: Canal Towpath

  1. Georgetown Metropolitcan readers might be interested in additional information on this pairing of images that appeared in the October 2, 2003 Georgetowner.

    Georgetown: Then & Again
    by Jerry A. McCoy

    Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s (1898-1980) hike of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in order to save it from being converted to an automobile parkway. On January 3, 1954 The Washington Post printed an editorial that endorsed the federal government’s plan to fill in and pave the 184.5-mile canal, from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD, so the public would have better access to the beauty and recreational opportunities of the Potomac River.

    Justice Douglas, an avid outdoorsman, disagreed with the Post’s contention that nature could be experienced from the seat (front or back) of a car. In a letter to the editor published on January 19, Douglass challenged the Post to hike the entire length of the canal with him in order to experience its beauty first hand. The eight-day hike commenced on March 20 and reversed the Post’s stance, eventually resulting in the passage of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act on January 8, 1971.

    It is frightening to contemplate how the immediate vicinity of the canal in Georgetown would look today had it not been saved and filled in to serve as a transportation artery. This Georgetown: Then image, taken in 1935 by Historic American Buildings Survey photographer Albert S. Burns, depicts automobiles parked next to lift lock #4. Looking east towards (then) Jefferson Street from 31st Street, this lock was one of 74 constructed on the canal between 1828 and 1850. With an average lift of eight feet, the locks raised canal boats from tidewater in Georgetown to 605 feet above sea level at Cumberland.

    With the canal no longer being used by the time this photograph was taken (having gone out of service in 1924), the owners of these four automobiles used the former towpath to park while perhaps shopping next door at Gormley’s grocery store, located at 1058 Jefferson Street. This structure was originally built in 1810 as the Potomac Lodge, No. 5, and is the earliest Masonic Lodge building still standing in the District of Columbia. This Lodge participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1793. In 1840 the Masons sold the property to Philip Gormley and moved their quarters to Washington (30th) Street. Today, the Lodge occupies the third floor of 1208-12 Wisconsin Avenue.

    Across from Gormley’s can be seen 1057 Jefferson Street. Constructed circa 1880s, this structure was occupied in 1935 by Lester W. Boswell, a meat cutter. Today the former residence serves as the C&O Canal’s Georgetown Visitor Center (202.653.5190). The architectural detailing seen above the front door and bay windows was removed by subsequent remodeling but can still be seen on its next-door neighbor at 1059 Jefferson Street.

    When did Jefferson Street become Thomas Jefferson Street? In 1940 District Surveyor Frank F. Healy had recommended that Georgetown’s Jefferson Street be re-named Thirtieth Place after residents of Jefferson Street in the Petworth section of Washington complained that cab drivers, delivery wagons and out-of-town visitors had difficulty finding their homes.

    As reported in the June 5, 1940 Washington Post, “…the Jeffersonians in Georgetown, looking upon these protestants as upstarts, pointed out that their own Jefferson Street existed before Washington was built.” An article in the Washington Times-Herald of the same day reported, “…militant Georgetown patriots…saw no reason to strike the name of the great Virginian from a street in their richly historical neighborhood.” Bowing to community pressure, District Commissioners made the name change.

    The Georgetown: Again image depicts lock #4 unencumbered by parked vehicles…replaced by the canal towpath and the sheltering shade of a massive tree that sprouted in the ensuing three-quarters of a century.

    Jerry A. McCoy is the Peabody Room special collections librarian at the Georgetown Branch Library. If you can share photographs of Georgetown from ANY years please contact him at 202.727.0233, email jerry.mccoy@dc.gov, or simply leave (or mail) materials with contact information at the Georgetown Branch Library, 3260 R Street, NW (corner of Wisconsin Avenue), 20007.

    Future historians will thank you!

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