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Washington’s Sewer History: Ideological, Technological, and Environmental Evolution

David Wooden, District Department of the Environment, Mellon Fellow 2015–2016, Fall

This project researched the origins of the District of Columbia’s sewer system. Most modern cities share some common histories regarding their development of sewer management techniques, but the district’s history has some unique characteristics due to its comparatively recent founding as a city by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, its location on a tidal river, and its governmental structure as a capital city lacking self-government for most of its existence. The site of the district is directly related to its proximity to planned water infrastructure. Prior to becoming president, George Washington believed that a navigable Potomac River providing a connection to the emerging country’s frontier resources via the Ohio River was a national imperative. He made personal investments in a commercial enterprise, the Potowmac Company, to realize his vision. When Congress gave him the mission to select a site for the nation’s capital, he appointed a commission comprised of fellow investors. The commission selected a site at a portage along the Potomac River where a world capital emerged from tidal mud flats. The planned canal system was intended to extend into the city, transporting goods and resources vital to the growth of an ambitiously planned metropolis. The canal to the Ohio River became the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal but never reached its intended destination to the west. The canal’s arm into the city became the Washington City Canal and the capital’s original and accidental sewer. Construction of the canal started shortly after the city’s founding along the courses of two existing streams: Tiber Creek and James Creek. Woefully underfunded and poorly constructed, the canal was mostly unnavigable and became the terminus for the city’s surface runoff and raw sewage. Known for its “accumulation of stagnant sewerage and filth” and as “a disgusting spectacle—a disgrace to the city and the nation,” the canal was entombed underground by the late nineteenth century and was largely lost from memory. As it was transformed from open sewer to subterranean tunnel, the canal became the origin from which today’s sewer gradually expanded as the city grew to Pierre L’Enfant’s planned extents and beyond.