26 Dec 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: The Anacostia Library

In researching the taverns of the Navy Yard neighborhood, I stumbled across something I really was not expecting: There once was a library to go along with all the other amenities in the area. Sadly, documentation of this is thin on the ground, but today we will look at the library and some of the men who made it happen.

A few small libraries, none of which survived very long, were established in the District of Columbia before the federal government moved there in 1800. The earliest was probably one founded in 1794 in Georgetown, known then as the Columbian Library. In 1805, however, a group of Navy Yard residents took it upon themselves to found such an institution for their use. The earliest mention of this was in the National Intelligencer of September 11, 1805, in which the notice was given that:

Anacosta Library

Notice to the Stockholders – That the annual election was held at the Library room in conformity to the constitution, on Tuesday the 3d inst. When the following gentlemen were elected officers:

While there may have been a glaring misspelling in it, they certainly had the part about ‘gentlemen’ right. The five men listed as trustees – Dr. Alexander McWilliams, James Burgess, Azariah Gatton, Matthew Wright, and Adam Lindsay – all fit the bill. Three of the five were or would soon become members of the city council, McWilliams was a naval doctor who later went into private practice. Only Burgess seems not to have left much of an impact on the historic record. Of the three men who had offices in the library – Robert Bunyie. Secretary; Samuel Fowler, Treasurer; Gustavus Higdon, Librarian – it is the last who is the most interesting.

While Fowler was once an unsuccessful candidate for office and Bunyie was a Scottish immigrant who later became a music teacher in Baltimore, Higdon is one of those people that pop up at various times throughout the early days of DC. His first job here seems to have been helping George Fenwick, one of the men who surveyed DC in the mid-1790s. He later was an associate judge for the election of 1807, and settled down as a dry-goods merchant at his store on L Street, between 8th and 9th. He was not only the librarian for the Anacostia library, but also in charge of the library itself, which took up one room of his home.

The following year, the library’s annual meeting took place at Drummond’s Tavern. The meeting was called by the new librarian, one Benjamin More (sometimes spelled Moore, though that seems to be erroneous). More’s ties to D.C. went back quite a ways, as well. He, along with William Cranch, had founded the first newspaper in the new city. It had only lasted about two years, from 1796 to 1798. He was later made a Justice of the Peace by Thomas Jefferson.

August 29, 1806 ad for the upcoming annual meeting of the Anacostia Library (LOC)

At the meeting, which was held on September 2, 1806, a slate of new directors was elected: Robert Alexander, Buller Cocke, John Dempsie, Thomas Carbery, John Davis, of Abel, Daniel Rapine, James S. Stevenson were the new members. Once again, it was a fairly well-regarded group. Alexander, Dempsie and Rapine were all members of the City Council at one time or another, as was the treasurer, Joseph Cassin. Rapine, who owned a book store just south of the Capitol, even became Mayor of Washington later. The oddly named Buller Cocke was a wholesale and retail merchant, as well as a naval purser. John Davis, of Abel (pic) was the first Master of the Naval Lodge No. 4. He was, unsurprisingly, employed at the Navy Yard, and was for many years the Master Workman there.

Unfortunately, this meeting is the last that is known of this library. Presumably, it closed shortly thereafter, and it was not until 1811 that the Washington Library Company opened for business on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House to give the citizens of Washington access to books in large numbers.

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