The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Washington City Canal

D.C.'s Very Own Shit Creek

Capital Campus | Addie Cox | March 30, 2016

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As we marvel at the magnificent disaster that is the D.C. Metro, let’s take a look ~back in time~ at another infrastructural train wreck in our nation’s capital.


Once upon a time, our great city decided it would be a spectacular idea to build a three foot deep waterway cutting through the heart of the capital. The waterway was intended to connect the Anacostia to the Potomac from east to west and D.C. to Pittsburgh from north to south. Called the Washington City Canal, this nightmare of a project has haunted downtown construction projects for years.


But let’s go back. The year is 1815. Napoleon’s getting his ass kicked over in Europe, New Jersey gets the first railroad charter in the U.S., and Switzerland has just opened the world’s first commercial cheese factory – facts entirely irrelevant to this story, but important for general trivia and wellbeing.


It had been 14 years since the American capital had moved to Washington. Political leaders were itching to make some cold, hard cash and upgrade the hellish swampland Jefferson had moved them to.  There was wide support for a plan to widen Tiber Creek, a waterway along the national mall, connecting the Anacostia River to their west with the Potomac to their east. This would ease transportation, alleviate costs, and allow the city’s construction to flourish. Despite setbacks in funding and a lil’ thing called the War of 1812, the Washington City Canal was completed in 1815.


“Huzzah!” an attendee of the opening ceremony may or may not have said.


It ran north from the Anacostia, then turned west along what is now Constitution Avenue, and ran straight across the National Mall until reaching the Potomac.



From the get-go, the Washington City Canal was a flop. It was too shallow to accommodate most boats. Water frequently ran over the banks during high tide. The Canal sometimes ran dry during low tide.


Despite being terrible at literally everything it was intended to be good at, the Canal was expanded in 1828. The expansion went north through Georgetown. Some wise guy had gotten the idea that D.C. and Pittsburgh ought to be connected by water. Wanting to jump on the bandwagon first, the Washington City Canal decided to buy up and sponsor this project and began expanding, connecting to Georgetown and heading north.


It was around this time that the city decided the Canal needed some parental supervision. A lockkeeper’s house was built at the intersection of the Georgetown canal and the original Washington City Canal. Chances are high you’ve walked by it many times. It still stands today at the corner of 17th and Constitution.



But a lack of a lockkeeper wasn’t really the problem with the Canal. By the 1830s, railroads were already taking off as cheaper forms of transportation. Maintenance money had run out and the grand digging adventure north to Pittsburgh fell off the tracks. By the 1850s, the Canal was #over in the minds of D.C. residents.


Though its entire construction was a bit of a mess, the real problems for the Canal didn’t even begin until after it closed down. What do you think happens when you abandon a shallow river running through a booming city? A whole lot of shit. Literally.


The Canal quickly became Uncle Sam’s designated outhouse. Sewage was slowly pulled across the city by the tiny current and into the Potomac. During the Civil War, the city ran into even greater problems with the water runoff (something I talk about in my article on D.C. stormwater, here). Disease, poop, and stagnant water were everywhere across the city.


After the war, the city realized they weren’t just headed up shit creek without a paddle. They had literally built shit creek right in their own backyard. In 1871, the head of Public Work’s commissioned the entire canal to be filled in and the water to be diverted. The filled in land formed what is now Constitution Ave.


But, in a turn of events that will surprise no one, they goofed pretty bad while trying to divert the water. Remember, the canal was originally a natural creek and that buried flow of water made it nearly impossible to build along Constitution Ave and the surrounding area.


It was not until 1998, when the Ronald Reagan Building was built, that the Canal was dealt with again. The ground under the construction site was weakened by the continued water flow of the Canal a century after it had been buried. But water be damned, this building was going to be built. The project managers put their noggins to worked and drafted up a plan to divert the haunted sewer stream away from their site.


In a hilarious and unsurprising turn of events, these masterminds accidentally diverted straight into the National Archives, IRS, and Ariel Rios buildings. The IRS building began to sink into the ground after the water knocked out its wooden foundation. The National Archives and Ariel Rios building actually flooded.


Alleged Video Feed from Archives Flooding


See Metro? It’s not just you that sucks.


So there you have it. The legend of Tiber Creek and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Washington City Canal. Next time your parents visit, you’ll have so many exciting facts to share, they won’t even have a chance to ask you what you’re doing after you graduate! Huzzah!