- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

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.

Another rocky mystery concerns the whereabouts of the “Pope’s Stone.” When the Washington Monument was under construction in the 1850s, states were expected to send money to the Washington Monument Society to help defray costs.

Instead, Alabama sent an engraved stone, starting a trend that resulted in a collection of more than 200 pieces of granite, marble and sandstone from states, Indian nations and even China. Among the international contributions was one from Pope Pius IX.

In 1854, a semi-clandestine political movement called the Know Nothings was fanning the flames of anti-Catholic sentiment.

According to Bryson Rash, writing in “Footnote Washington,” here’s what happened: Early on the morning of March 6, 1854, a small group of men overpowered the night watchman and carted off the Pope’s Stone, which presumably ended up in the Potomac River, just a stone’s throw away from the monument grounds. The Pope’s Stone has never been found, although the Diocese of Washington state did replace it with a replica in 1982.

According to Mr. Rash, rumors circulated for years afterward about the night watchman. Was he complicit in the crime? Apparently, he didn’t use his firearm to ward off the intruders or raise an alarm until two hours after the deed was done. Could he really have “known nothing” about what was going on?

And then there’s the Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street. The imposing edifice holds many mysteries, both outside and in. Look carefully at the sphinxes guarding the massive entrance, and you’ll notice that the eyes of one are half closed, while those of the other are wide open. Together, the two represent wisdom and power, respectively, watchwords for any successful president, several of whom, including George Washington, were Masons. (So were White House architect James Hoban, Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe and Washington Monument designer Robert Mills.)

Inside, a guided tour will take you through the majestic entrance lobby, into the building’s renowned library. But there’s a certain touch of the unexpected, along with the unusual. Tucked in a corner of the building is a room dedicated to Burl Ives, the genial folk singer best known to most as the narrating voice and snowman in the perennial Christmas TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Turns out, Mr. Ives was a Mason, too.

Myths and mysteries alike abound at the Smithsonian Institution, which counts the fact that many visitors think the Institution is just one building - instead of the 19 it actually is made up of - as perhaps the biggest myth of all. There’s also the notion that the Smithsonian contains at least one of everything - it doesn’t - and that it houses a certain appendage of gunslinger John Dillinger.

But make your way to the Museum of American Art, housed in the old U.S. Patent Office building, and you’ll see something that even the most seasoned code breakers have yet to figure out.

That would be “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” created by James Hampton between 1950 and 1964 and acquired by the Smithsonian in 1970. The massive piece made up of more than 180 gold and silver foil-covered objects contains a mysterious code which, according to museum spokeswoman Laura Baptist, remains incomprehensible to this day.

It’s hard to let the truth spoil a good tale, but often, the real story is just as interesting. There is no J Street, not because of some mysterious antipathy toward Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, but because the letters I and J were easily confused on street signs. Lincoln never slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, and Mary Surratt probably knew exactly what was going on when the Lincoln conspirators met at her boardinghouse, which still stands on H Street Northeast.

So don’t just go by the guidebook. Sometimes what - or who - is lurking behind that ordinary facade is just the puzzle piece you need to make the scene complete.

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