11 Jul 2009

Lost Capitol Hill: The Herdic Phaeton Stables

It is hard to imagine DC today without its Metro, speeding us under the city in air-conditioned comfort. However, for most of its existence, Washington was Metro-less, and had to rely on other forms of public transportation to help its citizens get around. Before the Metro, there were the street cars, before that, cable cars, and before that, the horse-drawn Herdic Phaetons.

The Herdic Phaeton Company began operations in 1879, with a single route taking passengers from 22nd and G NW to the Navy Yard. In order to compete with other services of its type, the company used carriages as designed by Peter Herdic, who made them with a low floor level, to make entry and exit easy. Inside the carriage was a row of seats along each side. The Herdics were an immediate hit, and were used as far away as India.

Three years after the founding of the company, it was time to expand. Dr. William Tindall, in his article “Beginnings of Street Railways in the District of Columbia,”(Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Columbia Historical Society, 1918.) describes the expansion as follows:

In 1883 the herdic company established a line operated by horse power, from 11th and East Capitol Streets to 15th and F Streets northwest, by way of East Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street. This line passed through the Capitol grounds and around the Capitol to the north, the vehicles passing under the steps of the Senate wing to discharge passengers, and in inclement weather doing the same at the House wing.

Previous to this, it was necessary to build a stable at one end of the route, so land was bought at 10th and C Streets SE, a square which was almost entirely empty at the time. The stable ran along 10th Street from C Street north to the alley which bisected the square. In 1886, a further permit was applied for, this time to turn the stable into a large U, wrapping around the interior alleyway. No pictures seem to exist of this stable, the closest thing to it is a drawing that was made for a map of DC in 1886 which shows a large building on the square. However, it does not at all resemble the building as shown on the real estate maps of the time.

The Herdic Phaeton Stables as seen on the Sachse map of 1886. The actual stables looked quite different from this fanciful take. (LOC)

The Herdic Phaeton Company lasted until 1896, when the principal shareholder died, and his heirs decided to liquidate the business. Increased competition from the cablecars and street cars had made life difficult for the company in the previous years, making the decision to sell fairly simple. In spite of this, a long-time employee of the company managed to run Herdics under the Metropolitan Coach Company brand until 1896. On October 22 of that year, the Washington Herald wrote an obituary for the now-obsolete form of transportation, speaking of them as “lingering relics of early days.” In 1909, the switch was made from horse-drawn carriages to gasoline-powered buses, ending the era of horse-drawn public transportation.

Not long after this, the stables themselves were torn down. The exact date of this is uncertain, and it wasn’t until 1923 that anything new was built on the land formerly occupied by the stables. However, real estate maps of the intervening years show only bare ground where the stables had once stood.

You can read more about Capitol Hill’s past in historian Robert Pohl’s weekly columns. Look for a new one next Saturday.

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2 responses to “Lost Capitol Hill: The Herdic Phaeton Stables”

  1. PG says:

    My neighbor was just telling me about when she used the streetcars on Pennsylvania Ave. She got on at Potomac Avenue. Great story Robert.

  2. RT says:

    I don’t know if it is related, but the DC sign shop in the alley south of Safeway is housed in an old horse barn that supposedly serviced the transportation on the hill. You can see the old stall windows on the outside bricked in and the iron I beams that were used with pulleys to put hay in the loft.

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