What's Left of the Washington City Canal?


There was a time when barges floated along the National Mall in the now defunct Washington City Canal. This manmade channel cut across the heart of the city and connected the Anacostia with the Tiber Creek and the C&O canal in Georgetown. City planner Pierre L'Enfant hoped that this would facilitate Washington's development as an industrial center. That hope never really materialized, and the Canal eventually turned into an open sewer. 

There was also the problem of pedestrians drowning in the canal. The ability to swim was not as widespread in the past, and there was a real risk of falling in at night before the introduction of street lighting.

While destruction of the canal began in the 1870's, there are still some interesting hidden tidbits that have survived. 

Lockkeepers House

The out of place building at 17th and Constitution Avenue once housed the lockkeeper. A canal employee lived here rent-free and was on duty 24 hours a day to man the locks, which raised and lowered the water level. Today this building is closed to the public and is used for NPS storage.  

Canal Terminus

L'Enfant plan showing canal end points

L'Enfant plan showing canal end points

The canal's Western Terminus was located next to the site of the present day Washington Monument. A huge landfill operation in the 1870's added 700 acres to the Potomac riverbank, and pushed the waterfront back, it is now in the middle of the park. The location is shown in yellow on the bottom left.

The Greenleaf Point Terminus was filled in and is now the site of the National Defense University. Looking at an aerial view you can still see the canal opening in the shape of the modern coastline. It has been incorporated into the James Creek Marina. That location is shown below on the bottom right.

The Navy Yard Terminus is an architectural oddity - the entrance is there but the canal is gone, and it has been maintained over the years in any case. The original canal was lined with stone, but as you can see the walls were redone in concrete. This photo was taken from the Anacostia River Walk Bridge near Nationals Park. The building in the background is the DC Water & Sewage Building.

Navy Yard Terminus. Elliot Carter Photo

Navy Yard Terminus. Elliot Carter Photo

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