03 Apr 2017


Lost Capitol Hill: Gilbert Vanderwerken and his Omnibus

Public transportation is a subject that I return to again and again. Today, I will look at one of the earliest ways you could get to the Navy Yard from the rest of Washington.

In the early days in Washington, the only form of public transportation was a stagecoach that went from the Capitol to Georgetown twice a day—hardly useful if you wanted to use it to get to work. The first attempt to get beyond this system was a horse-drawn carriage called an omnibus. Omnibuses were essentially horse-drawn carriages built to take the maximum number of passengers. They were used around the United States, including Washington, starting in about 1830. For the first years, the business was fairly unregulated. Although it was considerably cheaper to take the omnibus than the previously available cabs, there was still much left to be desired.

Enter Gilbert Vanderwerken. Vanderwerken had early realized the potential of these new conveyances, and had at first been a builder of them. He later moved to Mexico to start a bus line there. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, he found himself back in the States, and moved to the nation’s capital to makes his fortune.

Vanderwerken teamed up with John E. Reeside, the son of a stage-coach owner in Maryland. Together, they bought up the Union Line, which ran an omnibus service from the Navy Yard to Georgetown. The two ran a regular service from morning until evening, in contrast to the more irregular schedule employed by most others. They also began to have new coaches built for their line. The Republic, a newspaper of the time, wrote about one of their new acquisitions:

It is a pleasure to look at such a coach. It is a pleasure to ride in such a coach. If one must be upset, too, it would be a pleasure to be upset in such a coach. We wonder, now that we have seen it, that folks were ever satisfied with any other kind of a coach.

Each of the coaches was given an elaborate paint job and a name. The one referenced above was named for Millard Fillmore (pic) the current President.

Reeside and Vanderwerken expanded their empire, buying up the Union Hotel in Georgetown, as well as an old tobacco warehouse which they converted into a stable for their horses. Unfortunately, their partnership did not last, and a notice in the American Telegraph of August 5, 1851, signaled to all that a “dissolution:” had taken place.

An omnibus in front of the Treasury Building ca. 1860. (John DeFerrari)

Venderwerken continued on his own, and soon thereafter attempted to improve his system by laying tracks down, something which would have tripled the amount that each of his horses could have drawn. While there was certainly great interest in this scheme, Vanderwerken did not have sufficient clout, and so his scheme fell through. Others were no more successful. Instead, Vanderwerken attempted to expand in other ways, increasing service between the Capitol and Georgetown until 11:00 PM.

Not everything went smoothly, however, as an 1855 article in the Evening Star revealed:

A lady correspondent implores us to intercede with the proprietor of the Washington omnibuses, to induce him to instruct his drivers to admit no market baskets, o’ market days, inside his coaches. She suggests that marketers who patronize the omnibuses have their plunder conveyed on the top of the coach, where it can be secured from tumbling off by slight railing. Our fair correspondent does not mind bruising her shins by contact with heavily laden baskets or the shin bones they contain; bus she has had more than one elegant and expensive dress smeared over so as to destroy its value, by contact with blood, marrow, and loose hanging fat sticking out beyond the edges of over-filled market baskets, resting on the floor of an over-crowded omnibus.

More next week on the fate of Vanderwerken and his omnibuses.

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