Washington D.C. history

IN the summer and autumn of the year 1800, the seat of the national government was transferred from Philadelphia to the embryo city of Washington, on the banks of the Potomac and at the verge of a Maryland forest. "Woods," wrote Mrs. Adams (the wife of the President) in November, "are all you see from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed among the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing a human being." Only the north wing of the capital was then finished, and the President's house was only completed externally. Mrs. Adams wrote of that as being "upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables." "If they will put me up some bells," she wrote,--"for there is not one hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain--and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere for three months; but, surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it! Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood; a small part--a few cords only--has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals, but we cannot get grates made and set. We have, indeed, come into a new country."

The City of Washington was laid out on a magnificent scale, in 1791, with broad avenues bearing the names of the several States of the Union radiating from the hill on which the Capitol was built, with streets intersecting them in such a peculiar way, that they have ever been a puzzle to strangers. The corner-stone of the Capital was laid by Washington, in April, 1793, with masonic ceremonies. Only the two wings were first built, and these were not completed until 1808.

The site for the city was a dreary one. At the time when the government was first seated there, only a path, leading through an alder swamp on the line of the present Pennsylvania Avenue, was the way of communication between the President's house and the Capitol. For awhile the executive and legislative officers of the government were compelled to suffer many privations there. Oliver Wolcott wrote to a friend in the fall of 1800: "There is one good tavern about forty rods from the Capitol, and several houses are built or erecting; but I don't see how the members of Congress can possibly secure lodgings unless they will consent to live like scholars in a college or monks in a monastery, crowded ten or twenty in one house. The only resource for such as wish to live comfortably will be found in Georgetown, three miles distant, over as bad a road in winter as the clay grounds near Hartford. There are, in fact, but few houses in any one place, and most of them small, miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings. The people are poor, and, as far as I can judge, they live like fishes, by eating each other. You may look in any direction over an extent of ground nearly as large as the City of New York, without seeing a fence or any object except brick-kilns and temporary huts for laborers. There is no industry, society, or business."

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