07 Apr 2014


Lost Capitol Hill: McDowell’s Grain Elevator

Samuel McDowell

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a building in the background of last week’s column. No, not the Capitol: The building marked “McDowell & Sons Steam Elevator Grain and Linseed Meal.” Yes, there used to be a feed warehouse a few blocks from the Capitol. Today, we’ll look at the story of this unlikely business.
Samuel C. McDowell, who was born in Pennsylvania but had later lived and married in Delaware, moved to the nation’s capital during the Civil War. Like so many others, he was here to supply the government with goods needed to prosecute the war. McDowell’s business was in animal feed, and he soon was running J. Menough & Co, dealers in “corn, oats, meal &c” according to the 1864 city directory.

McDowell stayed in the District after the war, going into business for himself. He seems to have been a sharp operator, getting in trouble with the authorities in the post-war years for failing to license his wagons, as well as illegally tying his horses to a tree box.
Nonetheless, in 1870 he won the contract to supply the city’s fire department with hay and straw for their horses. It was in this time that he bought Square 680 which was bounded at the time by Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol, E, and 1st Streets NE. Over the next few years he built numerous structures on this property, including a 50×60 foot addition to his mill which was used to house the some 20 million sheets needed for the ill-fated 1890 census.

McDowell’s Elevator, in a detail from a picture of the second Capitol Park (Architect of the Capitol)

McDowell found himself in the role of a detective a few years later, when one of his wagons was stolen from in front of his house. McDowell suspected that the stolen wagon might be somewhere in Anacostia, so he spent some time searching for it there, eventually “he got a clew, and started to run it down,” according to the December 4, 1896 Post: “The trail led him a circuitous route to Piscataway, Prince George’s County, Md., eighteen miles from Anacostia. There he found his missing horse and wagon in the possession of [James] Hunt and [Louis] Bateman,” who re happily giving rides to the local children in the wagon. McDowell, who had offered a reward of $15 for the arrest and conviction of the thieves, declined to press charges, as the pair were all of ten years old. Sadly, that the two did not learn from this act of kindness became clear two years later, when they were arrested and convicted of a series of bicycle thefts.

In 1903, when Union Station – and particularly the plaza in front – was built, the course of E Street NE was changed, cutting through the property owned by McDowell. He was paid for lost land, and moved his business to Q & Eckington Streets NE. He still owned the rest of the square, and during the Union Station build, land was regraded, and covered up the building up to the second story. “It absolutely broke in the walls on each side of his mill and literally destroyed it – rendered it worthless,” as Ohio Representative James D. Post noted during a hearing 10 years later.
McDowell was forced to tear down the mill, but was not reimbursed by the government, as they claimed that he had received benefit – in that the land was much more valuable now than before – far greater than his loss. Since, however, nobody was about to buy property that would most likely be taken over by the federal government soon, the property represented a dead loss to McDowell, and in 1914, he was forced to sell his house, disslve his partnership he had entered into with William S. Hoge, and live in a rented house.

Finally, in 1915, McDowell was paid for the loss of his property, receiving a check for $134,390. Sadly, he had little time to enjoy it, as he died less than three years later. His son Frank, who had been in feed business for himself in Ohio, returned home to run his father’s business.
Today, the space from which McDowell operated his business for so many years is a parking lot overlooking both Union Station and the Capitol.

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