Georgetown Walking Tour Part 1

Georgetown is an upscale and charming neighborhood in Washington D. C It is also full of history. A mixture of architectural styles ranges from Neo Medieval, to Colonial, Georgian, Victorian, Federal and more. There is also the beautiful waterfront of the Potomac River and cobblestone streets lined with trees covered with delicate cherry blossoms in spring. All of this makes Georgetown very picturesque.

Houses range in size from small and narrow two story homes to luxurious mansions surrounded by gardens. These properties accommodated people of different means from slaves and freed African Americans to billionaires, successful businessmen, and politicians who had a great impact on the history of the U.S. and the world. In fact, many significant people lived in Georgetown such Todd Lincoln, a son of President Abraham Lincoln. Others include John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, Allen Dulles, a diplomat and a director of the CIA during the Cold War, Averell and Pamela Harriman, Ben Bradley and Sally Quinn, Bob Woodward, and Elizabeth Taylor. Evalyn Walsh McLean also lived in Georgetown. She was the spoiled daughter of a billionaire and she owned two famous diamonds: the Star of the East and the Hope diamond. The Hope Diamond is now displayed in the National Museum of Natural History. These people lived fascinating and interesting lives. The houses are still associated with their secrets, their passions, their beliefs, their victories and defeats, their friendships and betrayals, and their happiness and grief.

On our way to Georgetown we passed a beautiful waterfront of the Potomac River. There was a rowing competition going on and people cheered their favorite teams from the bank. The day was bright and sunny and our guide Kaylie from the “Free tours by foot” company was waiting for us on the corner of 31st and K Streets.

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The history of Georgetown began in 1632, when an English fur trader, Henry Fleet, established a trade with Nacotchtank people. Their village was at the farthest upstream point of the Potomac River, that ocean boats could reach. In 1745 George Cordon, a tobacco plantation owner, built an inspection house, warehouses and a wharf on the bank of the Potomac River. His trade went well and a small trading post grew into a thriving port, which traded mostly tobacco. In 1751 the Maryland Government purchased 60 acres of land from George Gordon and George Beall, a wealthy landowner, for 280 British pounds. Some said that Georgetown was named after the British King George II, others that the town was named after two merchants, George Gordon and George Beall. The port in Georgetown received salt from Europe and molasses from the West Indies. The Georgetown trade increased, when merchants began to trade coal, flour and slaves. Trade increased even more when the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

George Washington was hired to survey the Ohio River valley by Lord Fairfax of Virginia before the revolution. While doing the survey he realized that a canal would be a perfect way to connect Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River to avoid the turbulent current and rapids of the Potomac River, which made it unnavigable. Washington introduced a plan to build a canal along the Potomac River, which would go around whirlpools and other obstacles. George Washington’s plan was endorsed by the state of Maryland and the work began only after the revolution.

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George Washington became the president of the Potowmack Canal Company and he often visited the construction site of the canal. The construction was not an easy task. In fact, he was the first to dig the ground during the opening ceremony. The ground was so hard that he broke two shovels before he managed to dig a little dirt with the third one. The canal was completed in 1802. More than 1300 boats and barges each carrying up to 15 tons of cargo used the canal during a single year. The boats were drawn by mules and horses along the dirt path next to the canal. In 1820 the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company acquired the rights of the Potowmack Canal Company and rebuilt the canal as a continuous waterway with lift locks and gates to manage elevation changes. Dams were built to maintain a sufficient water level in the canal. After the Civil War about 850,000 tons of coal per year was transported by boats along the canal. By 1924 damaging floods and competition from a railroad company, which was faster, ceased the operation of transporting goods along the canal. Now the canal is under the National Park Service and is undergoing reconstruction.

When the canal was in use it was pretty noisy. Also the water drew mosquitoes and bugs. Therefore typically poor people lived on the banks of the canal. Wealthy residents built their houses higher on the hill.

Old Stone House

We stopped at the Old Stone House. It was built in 1765 and is the oldest house in Washington D. C. It was built by Christopher Layman on a lot, which he and his wife, Rachel, bought for 1.10 British pounds. The house was built from blue granite mined at a nearby quarry on the bank of the Potomac River. Layman was a cabinetmaker and used the house as a workshop and also as a place to live. He died the same year in which the house was completed. His wife later sold the house to Cassandra Chew, a business woman.

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During its lifetime the house was used as a workshop for tailors, hat makers, locksmiths and clockmakers. It was also used as living quarters and as a used car dealership. The U.S. government bought the house in 1953, mostly due to a legend which stated that the house once was George Washington’s engineering headquarters. A thorough research proved that this theory was untrue, but the Old Stone House was restored and turned into a museum. It’s located at 3051 M Street N.W. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The nearest metro station is Foggy Bottom.

Seminary for Young Ladies

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The house on 1305 30th Street, N.W. was once a Seminary for Young Ladies owned and operated by Miss Lidia English from 1820 to 1861. The young girls who studied there were from upper class families. They learned good manners, etiquette and how to successfully get married. The seminary became very popular after Andrew Jackson’s niece attended the seminary. As Miss English stated, her school provided the students with mental and moral culture to become amiable, intelligent and useful members of society. As a business lady she never expressed her political views inside the seminary but deep inside she was a staunch confederated sympathizer. She walked around and openly scorned the Union Army and President Lincoln. In retaliation her boarding school was seized and turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers and officers of the Union Army. Miss English had to rent a room in her own house. She lived there for a while but when the soldiers raised the Union flag over the hospital it was the last straw for her. She moved out and settled in a house two blocks away. One of the students of the seminary was a young, 16 years old beauty named Harriet Williams, who married a middle aged Russian diplomat. They also lived in Georgetown.

The house of Dr. Grafton Tyler

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Across the street from Miss English’s former seminary there is the house of Dr. Grafton Tyler on 1300 30th Street N.W. Dr. Tyler was also a confederate sympathizer. He could not stand the Union flag flying over the hospital, so that he always had his shutters on the windows closed. When the Union Army captured Richmond, the capital of Confederacy, in 1865 the soldiers from the hospital decorated Dr. Tyler’s house with mourning cloth and sang patriotic songs under his windows all night long. This story appeared in the Evening Star newspaper, written by a reporter, who covered festivities in Georgetown.

To be continued.

Resources used: Georgetown Notable Homes/Blds

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/sets/72157594236684793

5 comments

  1. I’m wondering if any of these houses have indoor tours. As you say, old houses are always infused with their owners’ “secrets, their passions, their beliefs,” and I find it fascinating to discover which of these stories the buildings decide to divulge.

    Liked by 1 person

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