21 Jul 2014

Lost Capitol Hill: The Tobacco Inspection Warehouse

ct001206In a few weeks, I will be giving a tour of the Navy Yard neighborhood, to try to give a sense of what the area looked like just before the British arrived on August 24, 1814. In order to prepare, I have been looking through old texts learn more about what used to be there – and find out about some things I had no idea existed, like today’s building.

The two cities that were incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1790 were both well-known as tobacco ports. Peter L’Enfant even added the road that was used to get the hogsheads of tobacco to the port of Georgetown into his design of the city, straightening it out a bit. It was later given the name Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was thus unsurprising that the new city of Washington would want to get into this business as well. Thus, on November 10, 1806, an “act for the erection of a tobacco warehouse, on lots number 13 and 14 in square No. 801” was approved. This was almost three weeks before they got around to approving what turned into Eastern Branch Market, which gives you a sense of the city councils’s priorities.
The act is quite specific. It required the ‘donation’ of the lots mentioned by the proprietor, and then three commissioners were to be appointed to built “a good and sufficient warehouse.” It was to be of “brick or stone” and “covered with tile, slate or iron.” Finally, it was to be “capable of containing at least six hundred hogsheads of tobacco.” Which, given the size of the hogsheads, meant that it would be a large building indeed.
The location was hardly surprising. Just a few blocks south of this location were a number of wharves. At the time, the Anacostia River (or Eastern Branch as it was at the time) was deep enough to allow the free passage of ships, many of whom departed from these docks for far ports.
The person operating this new warehouse was the Inspector of Tobacco. His duties had been defined six months earlier, in an act “to establish and regulate the inspection of tobacco.” The duties were carefully described: Each hogshead was to be opened, and the contents in three different places be inspected for quality, then weighed. All information was then to be marked on the hogshead. Also included in the act was an oath (or affirmation) that each inspector would have to take. While it was fairly lucrative position, earning $300 a year, the inspector also had to post a bond of $3,000 in order to take the post.

Tobacco hogshead being filled. The equipment in this 20th century photo would have been very similar to what was in the warehouse on 3rd Street (LOC)

Tobacco hogshead being filled. The equipment in this 20th century photo would have been very similar to what was in the warehouse on 3rd Street (LOC)

Finally, the act declared that all hogsheads of tobacco leaving the city from the moment of the appointment of the inspector would be subject to inspection, none should leave the city unless they “have been inspected, passed, and marked at the ware-house agreeably to the direction of this act.”
The warehouse was built, on the east side of Third Street, between M and N Streets. The inspector was, for many years, one Samuel P. Lowe, but the position remained for many years, with occasional acts passed by the city council to refine or expand the position. When, exactly, it was abolished is unclear, but probably during the Civil War.
The warehouse was also used for other purposes. After the burning of Washington in 1814, there was some interest in fire-fighting. Thus, on December 22, 1819, a meeting was held at a nearby tavern, the upshot of which was the formation of the Phoenix company, who stored their engine and other equipment in the tobacco warehouse.
The warehouse was eventually razed, and a school built in its place. Today, the area is entirely given over to the massive Department of Transportation building.

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