17 Dec 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: Getting here from there in 1802 (part 3)

For the last two weeks, we have been looking at what it meant to travel in the early days of our city. Today, we return to the second half of our 1802 trip from New York City to Washington: The 139 miles from Philadelphia to Georgetown. Once again, our guides are Joshua John Moore and Thomas W. Jones, and all descriptions are taken from their “Traveller’s Directory, or a Pocket Companion Shewing the Course of the Main Road From Philadelphia to New York and From Philadelphia to Washington with Descriptions of the Places Through Which It Passes, and the Intersections of the Cross Roads,”

Through Philadelphia, the old route deviates substantially from Route 1, which passes to the NW of the city, while the route as described goes through Gray’s Ferry – south of Philadelphia. Today, there are sturdy bridges here, but in 1802, it was a ‘floating bridge,’ for which a toll was to be paid. Our intrepid say only that these have been ‘established’ but don’t bother writing what they were. Presumably, they were well-known to those who lived in Philadelphia and were thus likely readers of this guide.

After passing Cobb’s Creek and Darby the traveler would cross Ridley Creek, once again on a toll bridge, a crossing that would set back a horse and rider 2 cents.

This would leave the rider in Chester, today very much a suburb of Philadelphia, while back then it was a ‘county town…fifteen miles from Philadelphia.’ The trip continued along the banks of the Delaware river, over Marcus Hook Creek and then, less than a mile later, into Delaware. Although today this route, along what is known as the Philadelphia Pike, leaves you almost immediately in Wilmington, back in 1802, you had Naaman’s Creek – and another toll – Grubb’s Landing, and the Brandywine Creek to traverse before reaching “the most considerable and flourishing” town in the state.

The rest of Delaware is easily crossed, through Newport, Stanton, the Christiana Bridge, and Iron Hill. The last is the area that we would today refer to as Newark, Delaware. Back in the day, it “abound[ed] with iron ore”

Two miles later, the traveler would find themselves in the state of Maryland, Elkton, Northeast, Charlestown would fly by, as would the crossing over the Principio Creek. A real barrier came just before Havre De Grace, where crossing the Susquehanna River just where it runs into the Chesapeake Bay costs real money: A whole quarter of a dollar for our horse and rider.

Keeping just west of the Chesapeake Bay, and well south of the modern Route 1 (but not far from the newer I95) the traveler in 1802 crosses through Harford Town (also known as Bush Town at the time – and now a part of Abingdon) then Abingdon itself, Joppa, crosses the Little Gunpowder River, which also is the border to Baltimore County.

Baltimore is given two long paragraphs – and no more. It is described as having ‘one of the finest harbors in the United States,’ but wastes few words on any other sites. Fells Point, the next step in the journey, is described as being ‘laid out with regularity, but inferior in point of elegance to Baltimore City.’

Instead, Moore and Jones press on to the Patapsco River, the crossing of which will cost our horse and rider 6 cents and leave us in Elkridge Landing (which has lost the latter part of its name in the intervening 210 years) It is at this point that you are clearly getting into terra incognito. There are only two small towns listed in the next 28 miles: Vanville (which is today the unincorporated area Vansville just outside of Beltsville) and Bladensburg.

The former is listed as being “pleasantly situated upon an eminence” while the latter consists of “one street, and has a ware-house for the inspection of tobacco.”

Shown on this map segment is the final lap into DC. As you can see, the route has already been improved - travelers now can take the 'new road' that leads from Bladensburg to the end of Maryland Avenue and thus to the Capitol. (Princeton University)

Shown on this map segment is the final lap into DC. As you can see, the route has already been improved – travelers now can take the ‘new road’ that leads from Bladensburg to the end of Maryland Avenue and thus to the Capitol. (Princeton University)

Of the country’s seat of government, Moore and Jones have more to say: Three full pages. Most is spent in describing L’Enfant’s plan, but there are also brief descriptions of the White House (still the President’s House) and the Capitol. Most of the space is taken up describing the geography, and above all, the potential of this brand-new city.

The final paragraph of the book describes George Town, and with that, ends with a definitive

‘F I N I S’


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