Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Washington (city)

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EB9 Washington (city) - plan - central portion.jpg
Washington — Central Portion.
1. Capitol.  5. Interior Department.  9. Government Printing Office.
2. White House.  6. Department of Justice.  10. Smithsonian Inst.
3. State, War, and Navy Departments.  7. Department of Agriculture.  11. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
4. Treasury.  8. National Museum.  12. City Hall.

WASHINGTON, the seat of government of the United States, forms a part of the District of Columbia, which is under the immediate government of the United States. The city of Washington as a corporation has had no existence since 1871, when Congress abolished the charters of that city and of Georgetown (also within the District of Columbia), and placed the entire District under one government.

The District of Columbia occupies an area of about 70 square miles, on the north-eastern bank of the Potomac, about 100 miles above its mouth, and at the head of tide and of navigation. Most of its area is a plateau, elevated 300 to 400 feet above the river, and traversed by the Anacostia river and Rock creek. Just above the mouth of the former stream, the bluffs, which form the descent from the plateau, recede from the river, leaving an area of bottom land about 6 square miles in extent between that stream and the Potomac. This bottom land is undulating, much of it being but slightly elevated above the river, while the highest parts are scarcely more than 100 feet above high tide. The city of Washington is built upon this bottom land, while its immediate suburbs extend up the bluffs and over the plateau to the northward. The bluffs return to the river immediately above the city, and upon their slopes is built the old city of Georgetown, which is practically continuous with Washington. There are several suburban villages scattered over the district, including Mount Pleasant, Tenallytown, Brightwood, Le Droit Park, and Uniontown.

The climate of Washington is characterized by great humidity, long-continued but not excessive heat in summer, with mild winters. Snow does not often fall, and never lies long on the ground.

Three railroads enter the city, the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania, which afford communication with the north and west, and the Richmond and West Point Terminal, which extends southward. Besides its railroad connexions, regular lines of steamers ply to northern and southern ports during most of the year.

The plan of the city is regular and symmetrical. Radiating from the Capitol are three streets, running north, south, and east, and known respectively as North, South, and East Capitol Streets. These, together with a line of public parks running west from the Capitol, divide the city into quarters, known as the north-west, north-east, south-east, and south-west quarters. The streets run in the cardinal directions, the north and south ones being designated by numbers, and the east and west ones by the letters of the alphabet, — the numbers increasing eastward and westward from the meridian of the Capitol, the letters progressing northward and southward from a parallel through that building. In addition to these streets, there is a system of avenues, which run diagonally to the cardinal directions, and which bear the names of States. The intersections of the streets and avenues have given opportunity for the construction of many small parks in the forms of triangles, circles, quadrilaterals, &c., which, with the numerous larger parks scattered about the city, add greatly to its beauty and healthfulness. The streets have a total length of 233½ miles. They are wider than in any other city on the globe, the avenues ranging in width from 120 to 160 feet, while the streets range from 80 to 120 feet. The area comprised in the streets, avenues, and public parks is considerably more than half the area of the city. As the width of the streets is in most cases in excess of the demands of travel, a portion of this width has, in the residence streets, been left between the side walks and the houses, and has been improved as a public parking. In some cases, similar parking has been left in the middle of the streets. Of the 233½ miles of streets, 30 per cent. are paved with smooth pavements, either asphalt, coal-tar, concrete, or asphalt blocks; 10 per cent. are paved with granite or trap blocks, and an equal extent with cobble or rubble; 4½ per cent. are macadamized, and 14 per cent. are gravelled, while the remainder are unimproved. The paved streets are swept by machinery at frequent intervals. With the exception of the business streets every street is lined with shade trees, which, arching over the pavements, form continuous shade for miles. The trees are mainly elms and maples.

The river is crossed by three bridges, — the Long Bridge, by which the city is directly connected with the Virginia shore, the Aqueduct Bridge, so named because it formerly carried the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the Chain Bridge, farther up the river.

The water supply of the District comes from the Potomac. It is taken out of the river at the head of a cataract, known as Great Falls, about 16 miles above the city. It is brought to the distributing reservoir, just above Georgetown, in an aqueduct, passing through a receiving reservoir on the way, and is thence brought to Washington and Georgetown through iron mains. No pumping is done, except to supply the suburbs on the bluffs. The water is excellent, and the supply ample. In order to give a stronger head in certain sections of the city, a tunnel has been constructed to conduct a part of the supply from the distributing reservoir to a third reservoir, north of the middle of the city. The sewer system of the city was not, like its streets, planned in advance, but was suffered to grow up, and is in consequence imperfect. There are three main outlet sewers, one emptying into the Potomac just above the Long Bridge, another near the mouth of the Anacostia, while the third, after skirting the city at the base of the bluffs, empties into the Anacostia. The houses are generally connected with the sewers. The city is fairly well lighted with gas and electric lights.

The District has an excellent common school system, modelled after that of New England; it is managed by a board of trustees appointed by the commissioners. Separate schools are maintained for white and coloured pupils.

The District of Columbia is governed by three commissioners, appointed by the president of the United States. They perform the executive duties, the various departments of the civic government being apportioned among them. Legislation for the District is enacted by Congress. The District has courts of its own, the judges being appointed by the president. The people have no voice in the management of affairs. Thus is presented the singular spectacle of the capital of a great republic governed by an absolute monarchy. Still more singular, perhaps, is the fact that this is the best governed municipality in the United States. The assessed valuation of the District in 1886 was $234,039,436. Of this, nearly one-half, or $113,803,090, was non-taxable, the exemptions being as follows: — property of the United States, $105,389,684; property of the District of Columbia, $2,058,772; private property, $6,354,634. The net debt was $21,279,600, and the rate of taxation $1.50 per $100. This enormous indebtedness was incurred in building up a beautiful city from a swampy waste. One-half of the interest upon it, as well as one-half of the current expenses of the District, is borne by the United States. Washington is unique in the fact that it was planned and constructed solely for the purpose of serving as the seat of government. It is therefore not surprising that it is without commerce or manufactures, excepting such as are required for the support of its inhabitants.

The population of the District by the last census, taken in 1885, was 203,459 (136,271 white and 67,188 coloured, the two races being in about the proportion of two to one). The population comprised within the old corporate limits of Washington was 173,606. The death-rate of the District in 1886 was — for whites 17.96, for negroes 32.35, and for all inhabitants 22.80 per thousand. The death-rate among the white population is less than in any other American city approaching Washington in size.

The public buildings are scattered widely over the city. The Capitol (see vol. ii. p. 454) stands upon an eminence towards the eastern edge of the thickly settled portion, in the midst of extensive grounds. It consists of a central building, surmounted by a dome, and flanked by two wings, in which are the chambers of the two houses of Congress. The length of the building is 751 feet, while its breadth ranges in different parts from 121 to 324 feet. It covers nearly 3½ acres. Its extreme height, from the ground to the top of the statue of Liberty, which stands upon the dome, is 307½ feet. The material of the central building is sandstone, that of the wings marble, while the dome is of iron. The entire cost of the building has been $13,000,000. Besides the two houses of Congress, the Capitol is occupied by the United States Supreme Court and the library of Congress. For the latter a separate building is now in process of erection, upon ground just east of the Capitol.

The Treasury is situated 1½ miles west of the Capitol, at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue; it is built mainly of granite, in the Ionic style, and measures 468 by 264 feet, with a court in the interior. It contains some 500 rooms, and cost $6,000,000. The building occupied by the state, war, and navy departments is just west of the Treasury, separated from it by the president's residence, which is known as the White House. It is built entirely of granite, is 567 feet long by 471 feet wide, and 128 feet in height, and cost $10,000,000. The interior department building is on F Street North, nearly equidistant from the Capitol and Treasury. It occupies two squares of the city, being 453 by 331 feet, with an interior court. It is simple in its proportion, and in the Doric style. It is built in part of freestone, in part of marble, while the interior is of granite. This building cost $2,700,000. The post-office department building is directly opposite the interior department, and occupies a whole square. The style is Corinthian, and the material is marble. The dimensions are 300 by 204 feet, with an interior court, and its cost was $1,700,000.

Running westward from the Capitol grounds to the river is a line of public reservations, having a breadth of four squares, from B Street North to B Street South. Within these extensive grounds are several public structures, — the botanic gardens, the buildings of the Fish Commission, the army medical museum, the national museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the department of agriculture, and the Washington monument. All these are of brick, with the exception of the Smithsonian Institution, which is of brown sandstone, and the monument, which is of marble. This is a plain obelisk, 55 feet square at the base and 555 feet in height. The White House is situated between the Treasury and the building of the state, war, and navy departments, on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the midst of ample grounds. It is of sandstone, 170 feet long by 86 feet wide. Among the other public buildings are the naval observatory, the Government printing office, the navy yard, artillery barracks, marine barracks, naval hospital, the city hall, the bureau of engraving and printing, and the pension office. Outside the former city limits are the Government asylum for the insane, the national college for the deaf and dumb, the reform school, and in the midst of a large and beautiful public park the soldiers home, a retreat for aged and disabled soldiers.

It was the design of those who laid out the city that its principal growth should be east of the Capitol. Certain causes, however, prevented this result, and sent the wealth and fashion into the north-western quarter. This quarter contains at present more than half the population and over three-quarters of the taxable property of the District. In this section are many thousands of residences of fine and varied architecture, the display of which has been much encouraged by the freedom of the building regulations.

Washington is one of the most cosmopolitan of cities. Its population is not only drawn from all parts of the United States, but every civilized nation has its representatives there. Its social life is characterized by a degree of variety and freedom rarely enjoyed elsewhere. It has become in recent years the American centre of scientific thought, and is rapidly gathering men of letters.

Washington was selected as the site for the federal capital in 1790. The States of Maryland and Virginia had ceded to the general Government a tract of land 10 miles square, lying on both sides of the Potomac, for that purpose. The Virginia portion was subsequently re-ceded to that State. In 1790 Georgetown was a city of considerable importance, but upon the site of Washington there were very few settlers. The plan of the city was drawn by Major l'Enfant, and the city laid out in accordance therewith by Andrew Ellicott. At that time the greater part of the site lying west of the Capitol was a morass, well-nigh impassable. The machinery of the government was moved to Washington in 1800, when it was “a backwoods settlement in the wilderness.” It existed principally upon paper, and the magnificence of the plan only served to emphasize the poverty of the execution. In 1814, during the second war with Great Britain, it was captured by the British troops, and the Capitol, together with most of the other public buildings, was burned. In 1839 it was described as a “large straggling village reared in a drained swamp.” Indeed, in 1871, although it had attained to considerable size, it was exceedingly backward in all municipal improvements. The public buildings and grounds were neglected. The streets were deep in mud, or clouded with dust; the unbuilt portions were morasses; and the sewerage was worse than useless. In that year Congress abolished the charters of the two cities, and instituted a form of territorial government, with a governor and a legislative assembly. The matter of municipal improvement was placed in the hands of a board of public works, with authority to carry out a comprehensive scheme. The work was commenced and pushed forward with the greatest energy, and almost fabulous results were achieved. In a very few years the appearance of the city was revolutionized. The cost of these improvements, was, however, enormous, and it was increased greatly by the rapidity with which the work was done. Much of it, too, was badly executed, so that it has been necessary to replace it. But, in spite of these drawbacks, the fact that Washington is one of tlie most beautiful and comfortable cities in the world is principally due to the first governor of the District and his board of public works. This government lived too fast to live long. In 1874 Congress abolished the territorial form, and established the present government by three commissioners.

The following figures illustrate the growth of the District in population: — 1800, 14,093; 1820, 33,039; 1840, 43,712; 1860, 75,080; 1870, 131,700; 1880, 177,624; 1885, 203,459. Washington had 109,199 inhabitants in 1870, and 147,293 in 1880. (H. G*.)


EB9 Washington (city) - plan.jpg

Plan of Washington.