March 25, 1965 Murder Bay

“Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. – Washington Post, 1888

March is upon us once again, a time when tourists flock to our nation’s capital to take in the cherry blossoms, along the banks of the Potomac. A gift to the United States from the people of Japan the Yoshino cherry in bloom has been called, the “most beautiful thing in the world.

H/T ABC News for this image of the cherry blossoms, of 2022

There, tourists may take in the Lock Keeper’s House, the oldest structure yet standing on the National Mall whose purpose it was to collect tolls and make records of travelers, on the Washington City Canal. Why you may ask, is a lock keeper’s house located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, some ten blocks from the Potomac?

The answer takes us back to a day when our nation’s capital was anything but, the most beautiful place on the earth.

Between 1775 and 1783, the United States Congress and its predecessor bodies did their business in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, later known as “Independence Hall”.

Lenfant City Plan

The “Residence Act” of July 1790 established a home for the Federal government along the banks of the Potomac River. 

The specific site was under negotiation when Alexander Hamilton brokered a deal.  Several delegates supported the current location in exchange for which, the Federal government agreed to assume their state’s debt, from the late revolution.

Pierre L’Enfant was selected to create the city plan as well as a design, for the buildings themselves. At the time, navigable waterways formed the economic backbone of the nation. L’Enfant’s plan allowed for a great canal connecting the Anacostia River called the “East branch” with the Tiber Creek, a tributary waterway to the Potomac.

Interest was high in such a canal but funding, was not. The project proceeded in fits and starts over the following decade and stopped altogether, during the War of 1812.

The Washington City Canal was dedicated in 1815. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was finished in 1833 and the lock keeper’s house, two years later. The system had problems from the beginning, overflowing its banks at extreme high tides and becoming too shallow for navigation, at extreme lows. Congress appropriated funds for improvements in 1849 but there were problems with contractors, and staff.

By now, business and government alike looked to the railroad as the future of commerce. The Washington City Canal fell into disrepair.

Washington City Canal H/T photographer, Tom Bosse

Dead animals joined with effluent of every manner and description to fill the W canal. In an age before streetlights, the Washington Evening Star of 1859 called the thing a “Man Trap”, “…because of the number of persons who have walked into it and drowned.” The Secretary of the Interior labeled the canal “a shallow, open sewer, of about one hundred and fifty feet in width, (sometimes called a canal,) which stretches its filthy surface through the heart of the city.”

The Civil War more than doubled Washington’s population with everything from soldiers and political types to escaped slaves living in “contraband camps”, along the canal.

Prostitutes flocked to over 100 houses of ill repute to service the needs, of Union General Joseph Hooker’s army. It’s a myth to say that’s where we get the term “hooker” from, but these ‘ladies of the night’ arrived in such numbers they would come to be called, “Hooker’s Division”.

Desperate to contain the seedier aspects of the city General Hooker consolidated the dark underbelly of the nation’s capital into these few blocks. What was already a seedy redlight district of brothels, gambling dens and alcohol was transformed to a hideous slum, known as “Murder Bay”.

Murder bay in 1855, H/T Smithsonian

Crime and violence rose to almost cartoonish levels. The place was so dangerous the police themselves stayed out, if at all possible. The Washington Post wrote in 1888 “Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. ‘Reforms’ were attempted throughout the post-war era, without success.

Murder Bay as it looked, in 1910

What began with the best of intentions was destined to end, with the wrecking ball. As the ‘Great War’ started up ‘over there’ the federal government bought up land on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. In the 1920s a handy new invention called the bulldozer, helped out.

Ten large city and federal office buildings were built in parts of Murder Bay to form an area now known as, the Federal Triangle. Other parts were razed beginning in the mid-1920s to be replaced with the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Justice, Labor, Interstate Commerce and the National Archives.

Washington DC, skyline with federal government buildings and the Monument

On March 25, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11210 providing for “the development of an orderly, phased program for carrying out the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue”.

The notorious slum known as Murder bay is but a memory now but the canal where it all began, yet flows to the sea. Pierre L’Enfant’s channel is still there, bricked over beneath the wheels of the busses and the bicycle rickshaws and the feet of all those tourists, come to see the cherry blossoms, along the Potomac.

March 27, 1912  Cherry Blossoms on the Potomac

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, joined First Lady Helen Taft in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River, first of a gift of 3,020 such trees from the people of Japan, to the people of the United States.

Eliza Scidmore was an American journalist, world traveler, author and socialite.  The first female board member of the National Geographic Society, her brother was a career diplomat, who served 38 years in the Asian Pacific. Frequent visits led her to a passionate interest in all things Japanese, most especially the ‘Sakura’, the Japanese blossoming cherry tree.  She called it “the most beautiful thing in the world”.

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In January 1900, Federal judge William Howard Taft was summoned to Washington, to meet with the President. He hoped it was to discuss a Supreme Court appointment, but it wasn’t meant to be. One day judge Taft would get his wish, becoming the only man in United States history to serve both as President, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For now, the American war in the Philippines was ongoing. Taft was directed to head up the commission to organize civilian self-government, on the island nation.

While the future President Taft labored in the Philippines, Helen Herron Taft took up residence in Japan, where she came to appreciate the beauty of the native cherry trees.

download (37)Years later, the Japanese Consul in New York learned of the First Lady’s interest in the Sakura, and suggested the city of Tokyo make a gift of Cherry trees, to the government of the United States.

For Eliza Scidmore, it was a dream 34 years in the making.  It was she who raised the money to make it happen.

On March 27, 1912, the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States joined First Lady Helen Taft in planting two Japanese Yoshina cherry trees on the bank of the Potomac River.  Near the Jefferson memorial. The two were planted in a formal ceremony, the first of 3,020 such trees.

Cherry BlossomsIt was the second such effort. 2,000 trees had arrived from Japan two years earlier, in January 1910, but they had fallen prey to disease along their journey. A private Japanese citizen donated the funds to transport a new batch of trees. The 3,020 were taken from the bank of the Arakawa River in the Adachi Ward suburb of Tokyo, to be planted along the Potomac River Basin, East Potomac Park, and the White House grounds.

The blossoming trees were overwhelmingly popular with visitors to the Washington Mall. In 1934, city commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the late March blossoming cherry trees, which grew into a national Cherry Blossom Festival.

During WWII, aerial bombardment laid waste to Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. After the war, cuttings from the cherry trees of Washington were sent back to Japan, to restore the Tokyo collection.

It’s not clear to me, if the trees which line the Arakawa River today are entirely from the Potomac collection, or some combination of American and native stock.  After the conflagration that was the war in the Pacific, I’m not sure it matters.  It may even be the whole point.

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Cherry Trees line the Arakawa River, Tokyo, Japan

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August 24, 1814 Washington is Burning

The only bright spot for the American side that day, came when Commodore Joshua Barney lead 520 seamen in a downhill charge, against a vastly superior British force. Barney took a bullet to the thigh and was captured by the British, who paroled him on the spot. Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn was impressed with the American sailor’s show of courage, saying “They have given us the only fighting we have had.”

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée kept his Britannic Majesty’s armed forces pretty well occupied.  In the former American colonies, the first two years of the War of 1812 were little more than a series of skirmishes.

washingtonsack1The Corsican’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to Elba freed up some of the most elite, battle hardened troops in the world.

On the morning of August 24, 1814, 4,370 of them were moving up the Chesapeake, toward Baltimore.

They were met by an inexperienced and poorly equipped militia force of some 6,000 American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, whose comprehensive defeat and humiliating rout went into the history books as the “Bladensburg Races”.  President James Madison and most of the federal government were present at the battle, and nearly captured. American militia members fled through the streets of Washington, while every politician from President Madison down to Freshman Members of Congress skedaddled across the countrysides of Maryland and Virginia.

The only bright spot for the American side that day, occurred when Commodore Joshua Barney lead 520 seamen in a downhill charge against vastly superior British forces. Barney took a bullet to the thigh and was captured by the British.  Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn was so impressed with the American sailor’s show of courage that he paroled the man on the spot, saying “They have given us the only fighting we have had.”

The British sent an advance guard of soldiers to Capitol Hill under flag of truce, intending to discuss terms of surrender. The column was attacked by the occupants of a single house at the corner of Maryland & Constitution Ave., the only resistance the redcoats would see in the city. The house was burned, and the British raised the Union Jack over Washington DC.  Then they commenced to burn every government building they could find.


The Senate and House of Representatives buildings were the first to burn, along with the Library of Congress and Supreme Court, which at that time were located inside.  The Treasury building was next, though British hopes were disappointed to find there was no money inside.

First Lady Dolley Madison barely had time to gather up some precious objects, ordering White House staff to remove the portrait of George Washington before the “President’s House”, as the White House was then called, was overrun. The table was set for President Madison and a party of 40 at the time, the wine still cooling on a sideboard when the British set the White House of it’s day, on fire.  All night they added fuel to the flames, just to keep it going.

British burn the White House

Portraits of King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte Sophia were discovered in one public building, and taken down before that building too, was burned.  The two portraits made their way halfway across the Atlantic to Bermuda, where they hang in the Parliament building, to this day.

The Washington Navy Yard was torched the following day, along with departments of State, War and Navy.  Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the National Intelligencer newspaper intending to burn that down, too, but several women persuaded him not to.  Instead, Cockburn ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick.  He ordered all the “C” typeset destroyed, too, “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.”

The largest loss of life in the whole episode occurred on the afternoon of the 25th, whenWashington burning General Ross sent two hundred men to secure a fort on Greenleaf’s Point. The fort had already been destroyed by American forces, but 150 barrels of gunpowder remained. The powder ignited while the British were trying to drop it into a well, killing at least a dozen and injuring many others.

A heavy thunderstorm came up that same day, putting out many of the fires and spawning a small tornado that damaged British ships causing them to withdraw. Thomas Jefferson later sold his personal library of more than 6,000 volumes to the government, restocking the Library of Congress with his own personal collection.

The episode has been called “The greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms”…”The most humiliating episode in American history.”  It was the only time before or since, that an enemy force has occupied our nation’s capital.

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