As soon as the heavy, humid days of summer hit in earnest, one sentence in particular starts circulating around this city faster than the air around Capitol Hill. Washington, the locals will tell you, “was built on a swamp.”
But wait - turns out that old “Washington-was-built-on-a-swamp” story may be just another fish tale. That is, if you listen to historian Bob Arnebeck, whose book, “The Seat of Empire: A History of Washington, D.C.,” chronicles the early years of the nation’s capital.
“Washingtonians always wanted more money to develop the city, and they were always pressing the federal government,” said Mr. Arnebeck, who notes that early developers’ decision to cut down most of the District’s trees - trees that helped control soil runoff - contributed to the swamp myth, especially since the expected development didn’t come right away. “They were looking for a reason to explain why our development was so slow.”
Oft-told tales have abounded in our fair city for years. Ever hear the one about why there is no J Street? Or listened to someone wax on about the influence of the Masons? Wondered how the Lincolns liked the Lincoln Bedroom? Thought Mary Surratt was just another doting mother who had no idea what was going on at her inn? Those are just a few of the tall tales, strange occurrences and hidden history that help make the District of Columbia what it is today. So what better way to learn about the nation’s capital than to sort out some of its myths and mysteries?
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One enduring legend is that Benjamin Banneker, a free black mathematician and surveyor, designed the city of Washington, taking over for Pierre L’Enfant after the notoriously volatile Frenchman got himself fired in 1792. L’Enfant’s design was the basis for the capital city; Banneker assisted Maj. Andrew Ellicott in making a survey of the location for the city.
“He actually stayed up at night and did calculations of the stars,” said Jane Levey, a Washington, D.C., historian with Cultural Tourism DC. “He didn’t actually design the city.”
What Mr. Banneker did do was no less extraordinary, Ms. Levey points out. “He was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer who built the first striking clock in the United States.”
Then there’s the one about the Indian princess on top of the Capitol Dome. To be sure, the female figure’s headdress does sport an eagle head and a few feathers, but that’s no Indian. In fact, the real story is intriguing, says Steve Livengood of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
Back in 1855, when sculptor Thomas Crawford was designing his top-of-the-Capitol beauty, he envisioned a female figure crowned with the liberty cap of ancient Rome, no large stretch in a city that already had adorned itself with neoclassical buildings and a creek it called the Tiber.
It turned out, however, the secretary of war, who was responsible for approving major expenditures, had other ideas. In fact, he was convinced the sculptor was engaged in a scheme to promote the abolition of slavery. So the nation got a statue called “Freedom” sporting a modified headdress that could not be so directly tied with the notion of slaves in rebellion. And the secretary of war - Jefferson Davis - went on to bigger things as president of the Confederate States of America.
The story, though, does not end there. When casting on the statue began, contractors used both free and enslaved labor to finish the job. Turns out, freedom came more easily than Secretary of War Davis would have wished.
“They were working on assembling the statue when word of D.C. emancipation came through,” Mr. Livengood says. “So they started the statue as slaves and finished it as free men.”
Ready for some mysteries? Among the earliest is the tale concerning the three small, rocky islands in the Potomac River just west of the Key Bridge. According to one legend, the islands represent the transmogrified spirits of three American Indian maidens who set out from the Virginia side of the river intent on reaching their lovers on the Maryland shore. As story has it, they never made it.
According to John Alexander, writing in “Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories,” the Potomac’s treacherous undertow took the girls to the bottom within minutes. Before they went under, each pledged that since she couldn’t get across the river at that point, no one could. To be sure, the Potomac gets progressively more unpredictable as it makes its way west toward the Chain Bridge. A 1972 attempt to build another span across the river at that point, to be called the “Three Sisters Bridge,” was dashed by the combined onslaught of Hurricane Agnes and red tape.