The Story of How Georgetown Found it Grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it’s the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way? GM has written about Georgetown’s past a lot, but never much about its actual birth. Today he’ll fix that.

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town’s early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the furthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges £280.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn’t filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L’Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington.  What didn’t survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown’s streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

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3 Comments

Filed under History

3 responses to “The Story of How Georgetown Found it Grid

  1. Kate Whitmore

    Thanks, GM, great stuff. You may also have read that for some years after Georgetown joined the capital city and had its streets renamed it suffered the indignity of being forced to call itself “West Washington” and drop the Georgetown. Now it is, bureaucratically at least, just another part of the city. Not to us, though!

  2. Jim McCarthy

    I forget who the organizers were, but twenty years ago or so there was a movement to have Georgetown secede from the District. The legal argument (no doubt forged over cocktails at Martin’s) was that it was improperly forced into DC in the first place. Can’t remember if the idea was to make it another state or part of VA or MD or what-in-the-heck. But I do recall that lots of locals, old-timers especially, were all for it. Me too! Psst, GM, you could be the pamphlet of the revolution…

  3. Pingback: Now and a Long Time Ago: M St. | The Georgetown Metropolitan

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