Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

“High-handed usurpation and outrage”: The End of Washington City Canal

Benjamin Severson was incensed. The work he’d devoted so much time and energy into had been undone. Despite many critics, Severson, a civil engineer and foreman under Montgomery Meigs for the  construction of the new Capitol dome, had stridently pursued re-dredging the Washington Canal, confident it would be a vital component of Washington’s booming economy.

In 1870 he oversaw the re-dredging, paid for by Congressional appropriation. Yet now, in 1872, the Board of Public Works was re-engineering the entire thing, narrowing the canal, arching it over, and turning it into a sewer. The Board of Public Works, spurred on by the Board of Health, making these changes, undoing Severson’s work. Severson threw his all into the canal question, even his great ally Thomas Green termed him a “man of savage honesty.” [1]

The Washington Canal, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was the attempt of the city founders to take advantage of, and remake part of, the natural landscape of Washington City. Having begun designs in 1804, it was only in 1810 that Latrobe wrote to a Col. Tatem in Norfolk:

“We are going this Summer to cut a Canal from the Potowmac thro’ the heart of our city to the Harbor or Eastern branch. Upon the whole the city “looks up*1 considerably. It must necessarily become one day or other a great place. A few hundred Years hence some historians may notice the labors of Yourself and perhaps mine; with a skim of praise qualified by an apology for us, in these words, “considering the infancy of the arts and of the empire.” This is all we have to hope or expect.” [2]


Rare 1847 depiction of horse (or mule)-drawn barge on the Washington Canal, titled “Elements of National Thrift and Empire”; lithograph published by by Edward Weber & Co. of Baltimore after Joseph Goldsborough Bruff. courtesy, Library of Congress.

Complete article here:


Washington-area canals, mid-1840s.WashingtonAreaCanals

4 comments on ““High-handed usurpation and outrage”: The End of Washington City Canal

  1. eslkevin
    March 23, 2016

    Reblogged this on Eslkevin's Blog and commented:
    Learn about DC’s history.

  2. Pingback: “High-handed usurpation and outrage”: The End of Washington City Canal | Eslkevin's Blog

  3. John P. Richardson
    March 23, 2016

    Matt Gilmore has done Washington history a service with his excellent account of the tug-of-war over the fate of Washington canal through several decades of the 19th century until Alexander Shepherd instructed the Board of Public Works, which he headed, to fill in the canal and build a sewer parallel to it. This subject deserves more public awareness, since canal closure was Shepherd’s one significant deviation from implementation of the L’Enfant plan for the capital.

  4. Marchant Wentworth
    June 9, 2016

    No doubt Shepherd was “high handed” as were most of his moves. But a report to the Smithsonian (that had reason to hate the Canal) found that the Canal was actually only operative 3 out of its 40 years in existence. River hydrology dictates that placinq a Canal at a site of sediment deposit was doomed to failure and would always lead to perpetual pleading to Congress for dredging from the timber and coal interests. In any event, the Canal became the repository for the city’s sewage and stormwater. The putrefying mess became a major source of cholera and malaria in the city. It was probably well to let this element of L’Enfant’s Plan go.

    [Note: “high-handed” was Severson’s (a Shepherd opponent) characterization–a fairer characterization is that Shepherd simply cut the Gordian knot which had bedeviled the issue of the canal for years.–MBG]

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