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Earl y Days in the Navy Yard Section
BY JOHN CL4GETT PROCTOR. THE Southeast section tf Washington, or what the old-timer would call the Navy Yard section, has its historic spots in comm™ with the other parts of the Capital City, and there are many families still living in this section whose people settled there a hundred or more years ago, and who can relate all about the early days of Christ Episcopal Church, the United States Navy Yard and Congressional Cemetery from the stories told them by their parents and grandparents. Of course, they might not have everything just exactly right, for tradition frequently errs in the handing down of events by word of mouth, and still it is always interesting to hear some early resident relate events which happened many years ago. Just where Capitol Hill leaves off and the Navy Yard section commences, so far as the writer knows, is a matter of geography that has never been satisfactorily determined. For, indeed, the latter is as mythical a territory as Brightwood, Foggy Bottom, English Hill, Swampoodle and some other parts of Wash ington—one knows when he is in it, but he does not know exactly when he is out of it. But, generally speaking, anywheie east of about Sixth street southeast and south of Pennsyl vania avenue to the Anaco6tia River might safely be called what is known to the old Washingtonian as the Navy Yard section. Until just recently probably the oldest build ing standing in Southeast Washington was the old Eastern Branch Hotel, occupied by William Tunnicliffe in 1796. There the Washington Dancing Assembly held its first ball in De cember of that year, the first one recorded as held in the city. In 1800 it became the home of Capt. William Easby and subsequently served as a saloon, a garage and a storage place until it was razed. It stood at the south west corner of Ninth street and Pennsylvania avenue, the site being now occupied by a gasoline station. However, undoubtedly there are some old buildings still standing in the Navy Yard sec tion. One in particular that stands up well under its age is the residence at the northeast comer of Sixth and South Carolina avenue, erected in 1795-6 by Capt. William Mayne Duncanson, who held the rank of captain in the British Army, and who came to this country in 1794 with Thomas Law, and who, with the latter, came to the Federal Capital in 1795. PIRHAPS we are rather inclined to the belief that just about now we are living in an ex ceptional period, when we can lose more money through bad investments than at any other time in the history of the Government; but this is not so, and if Barnum were living he would still say that an easy mark is born every minute and one dies once a year—the only difference now being that the population has increased and so has the number of suckers, and it is also just as true today as it was in the early days of Washington, that the more careful the person approached some times the easier he parts with his bank roll. When Capt. Duncanson arrived here he surely came at an opportune time to lose all he had ever made, as did the other members of the syndicate who contracted with "Uncle Sam" for 42 per cent of all the lots in the city. Capt. Duncanson parted with $70,000 and undertook other obligations which left him a poor man, and also quite a different person, financially at least, from the wealthy gentleman who had arrived here only a few years before and who had his home, then a mansion, in square 875, between D street and South Caro lina avenue and Sixth and Seventh streets. He was of the English aristocracy, well bred and well educated, and his home was the meeting place of the elite in Washington at that time. His mansion, which was designed by William Lovering, was in keeping with his social standing and he had a coach house and stable sufficient In size for his four-in-hand, then quite the thing for men of wealth and refinement. But the making of a fortune—or the adding to one—proved an illusion, and on July 25, 1809, a decree was Issued by the cShrt directing the sale of his South Carolina avenue property, with the dwelling we see today, to Francis Scott Key as trustee. On July 20, 1838, title to this property was again transferred, this time to Maj. Augustus A. Nicholson of the United States Marine Corps, one of the best known men in the Navy Yard section. He was a man of very aristocratic character, of fine taste, and what the French call a bon vivant. His entertainments were attended by the most fashionable people in the District. Maj. Nicholson was married in 1821 to Miss Lispenard of New York, by whopi he had a number of children, among them being Commodore Nicholson of the Navy and Maj. Nicholson of the Marine Corps, both residing in Washington now. His second wife was Sallie Carroll, daughter of Daniel Carroll of Duddington. Subsequently, on June 2, 1856, a deed con veying Nicholson’s holdings was drawn to John M Clayton, United States Senator from Dela ware, who died in Dover, Del., November 9 of that year. It was Senator Clayton who, when serving as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President Zachary Taylor, March 7, 1849, to July 22, 1850, negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer treaty With Great Britain which provided for the tonstruction of a ship canal across the Isthmus ©f Panama, and in which both parties agreed not to erect fortifications here or to acquire any part of the Central American territory. SENATOR CLAYTON improved the old resi dence by adding on the east front a ball or music room for his daughter, and at his own expense had gas piped to the premises from some distance. During his brief residence here, no doubt, many notable so ial entertainments took place. The next deed to this property, date^ April H 1858, was to Louis Francis Pourtales (said “The Maples, ” Erected by Capt. William Mayne Duncanson—Old Anacostia Engine House—Some Southeast Buildings and Families—Marine Barracks. OLI Anacostia engine house on site of present No. 18 engine company, Ninth street betueen K street and Virginia avenue southeast. to have been an exile of French nobility). In 1872 the residence and square were sold to Mrs. Emily Edson Briggs, whose son, Edson Briggs, was until his death a few years ago a member of the Association of Oldest Inhabi tants. Mrs. Briggs, or “Olivia,'’ as she signed her articles, was one of Washington’s best known early newspaper women writers. She was the wife of John R. Briggs, assistant clerk in 1865 of the United States House of Representatives, and a personal acquaintance of President Lin coln. who admonished him not to let his wife come to the inauguration, for, he said: “It is best for our women to remain indoors on that day, as the bullets may be flying ” But Mrs. Briggs did attend one of the White House receptions, or levees, as those functions were then called, and her pen picture of the martyr President, written many years afterward, is characteristic of her style. She said: "At that time, as all Americans know, Lincoln was the most jovial of men. and the contrast in his appearance when I saw him at the levee was startling. If you have ever seen an oak tree standing alone in a field with its great gnaried trunk and branches stretching heaven ward, the atmosphere about it charged with electricity, and the black, thundering clouds on the horizon threatening any moment a war of the elements, you will realize the impression made upon me by Abraham Lincoln as he stood there in perpetual fear of a dagger thrust * or a bullet, and the warning notes of inter necine strife sounding from the South. "Every line in his face evidenced the kind, rugged character of the man. and every pose of his gigantic figure indicated democratic nobility." IN 1871 Mrs. Briggs was representing in the Congressional Press Gallery the Philadelphia Press, along with such women as Mrs. Lippin ;ott, who wrote for the New York Tribune: Mrs. McCaine, who was the correspondent for the New York Herald; Miss Snead, the New York World, and Maria A. Stetson, the Topeka State Record. Nor did Mrs. Briggs observe any absence of men of talent from seats in the press gallery. A lew of the correspondents were; George W. Adams (then one of the owners of The Star), representing the New York World; R. F. Boiseau, The Star; H. V. Boynton, the Cincinnati Gazette; D. D. Cone, Philadelphia Ledger; Frederick Douglass, Wash ington New Era; D C. Fomey and John W. Forney, jr., Washington Sunday Chronicle, and L. A. Gobright, New York Associated Press, who resided at 918 E street northwest in the house once occupied by James Buchanan before he became President. O. K. Harris at that time represented the Washington Patriot, of which James E. Harvey was editor: S. H. Kauffmann, The Star; W. C. McBride, Washington Chronicle; W. J. Mur tagh, Washington Republican; Crosby S. Noyes, editor, The Star: Hanison Gray Otte, Cdten&w State Journal, wbo then lived at Nb. 10 I street; U. H. Patate*, who built the UaJayett* Square Theater, now the Belaeco, the Philadel phia Inquirer; Don Piatt, editor of the Waaiw ington Capital? Ben Perley Poore, Boston Journal; H. A, Bveston (father at James Lj, Preston), Hew York Herald; J. C. Proctor (the writer’s father), Philadelphia Ledger; Arthur Shepherd, Washington Republican; George Alfred Townsend, editor. Washington Capitol, and there were other men well known in the journalistic field of that period. Mrs. Briggs made some additions and im provements to her South Carolina avenue home, and had her friend, Constantino Brumidi— whose wonderful historic decorations adorn the “eye of the dome” of the CapUol—to decorate her ball room, which he did in his magnificently artistic way. A NOTHER old landmark of much public ' ' service in the southeast section and which was removed some time subsequent to 1901 was the Anacostia Fire Company’s building on the comer of Ninth street and Virginia avenue. Tliis company was organized on December 16, 1818, and we find by the following notice printed in the National Intelligencer of that date: “Fire Company—The citizens of the fourth ward are particularly requested to meet at the tavern of Lawson Pearson on Wednesday eve ning, 16th instant, at 7 o’clock, for the purpose of organizing a fire company agreeable to law.” Subsequently a meeting was called for Jan uary 6, 1819, for the election of officers, but the time was evidently postponed until Feb ruary 9, when the following officers were elected at Hemsworth’s tavern: Dr. Alexander McWilliams, president; John W. Brashears. sec retary; Robert Desher, treasurer; Thomas Hall day, director of engineers; Robert Clark and Cclmere Bean, ax men; James Friend, director of ladder men; George Adams, director of sentinels; William Prout, director of furniture men, and Edward W. Clark, director of line or linemen. At first this company was located near the Branch Market, south of K street, be tween Fifth and Sixth streets, but later when this building was erected in 1839 on the west side of Ninth street, between K street and Vir ginia avenue, where No. 18 Engine Company in now located, the company moved there. In 1863 shortly before the company went out of existence its president was Thomas W. Cook. Caleb Burgess was vice president; William H. Cress, secretary; James A. Gordon, treasurer, and A. D. Shaw, steward. From 1866 to 1874 and perhaps even later some of the lower public school grades were taught there, Miss Mary E. Armistead and Miss Maggie E. Sexton being among the early teachers. Miss Margaret E. Forbes, a retired school teacher, but still active In the Society of Natives, began her teaching career there in 1873 or 1874. This building was a popular meeting place for various organizations following the Civil War, and the Knights of Pythias met here for a long time. It meant much to the people of the Navy Yard, who looked upon it as the town hall, where all civic controversies were argued and settled to the best Interests of all, and the placing of the new engine house cm this site compensated to some extent for the removal ot the old building to which so much sentiment was attached. Naval Lodge of Masons was then meeting on the south side of Virginia avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets. The Odd Fellows had their hall at the comer of Seventh Continued on Thirteenth Poor The MapU^s, Sixth street and South Carolina avenue southeast. Erected in 1795-6, bf William Wayne Duncanson, and owned until recently by the Briggs family.