17 Sep 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: The Hill's First Brewery

I recently wrote about Thomas Law and his attempt to build a sugar refinery on the Hill, at the base of New Jersey Avenue, on that Anacostia. The refinery did not last long, and was soon turned into a brewery. It is about this brewery, and the man behind it, that we will look at more closely today.

 Cornelius Coningham (or Cunningham, he seems to have been known under both variants) came to the United States from England, and made history in 1796 by opening a brewery, the first in Washington D.C. He had a partner in his affairs: James Greenleaf, one of the major speculators in Washington land in the early days of the city. The brewery, a two-story stone house, was located just southwest of the White House, right on the Potomac, on what is today Constitution Avenue.

Coningham advertised his wares in the Washington Gazette, announcing the wares of the Washington Brewery, as he called his venture. The ad continued on with a list of products produced there: strong beer, table beer, hops, grains, and yeast and Whiskey. Table beer is a much lower-alcohol drink, on the order of 1% alcohol, that was used to wash down dinner in those days. According to the ad, Coningham was also interested in buying rye and barley. Though it is not mentioned in the ad, Coningham also raised pits on the leftovers from his brewing and distilling.

It seemed as if Coningham was onto something good, but, unfortunately for him, the partnership with Greenleaf did not last long with Greenleaf selling out to his brother-in-law John Appleton in 1797. As part of the deal, the business relationship with Coningham was to be dissolved.

Ad for the Washington Brewery in the Washington Gazette, as reprinted in Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City, a 1901 book by Allen Culling Clark (Google Books)

In 1798, Coningham is listed as being a brewer in Alexandria, where he sold his wares – a similar list to the earlier one – from a shop on Water Street, along the waterfront.

Sometime thereafter – and here, details become sketchy, at best – Coningham moved his operation to Capitol Hill. He found what seemed a perfect building, a handsome 8-story brick structure that had been built as a sugar refinery. For the next several years, Coningham brewed his beer here, and in 1808 – as the building’s owners sank into debt – even managed to take control of building for 15 years for a nominal sum.

In spite of this, his venture was not a success, and by 1811, Coningham was out of the brewing business entirely. A Cornelius Cunningham is listed as having joined the US Army as a surgeon’s mate in 1810, and serving for the next 10 years. As Coningham had originally been a doctor, this is likely one and the same person. However, after that, Coningham, the first of a long line of DC brewers, disappears entirely into the fog of history.

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