12 Jul 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Augustus Köllner

Augustus Köllner

When I have nothing better to do, I poke around the Library of Congress pictures collection, looking for images that are new to me. I recently came across one that really surprised me. Drawn in 1839 by Augustus Köllner, it is entitled “Tiber Creek, North east of the Capitol” and shows a train crossing a bridge, with two cows chasing each other in front of it, plus a horse watching the whole scene.

It is a bucolic scene, and one that would today be unthinkable anywhere in the District, but was, in fact, less than a half mile from the Capitol.

Augustus Köllner (sometimes rendered as Koellner or Kollner) was born in 1812 in the German state of Württemberg. His gift for painting showed itself early, especially when it came to drawing animals. By the time he was 16, he was working as an engraver in Stuttgart. After a brief sojourn in Paris, he boarded a ship in 1839 and headed to Washington.

His time in the nation’s capital was not long, but was extremely prolific. His pictures show not only a city in embryo, but the grand halls that were used by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The following year, he broke with Philip Haas, who had employed him during his time in Washington, and set out traveling, ending up later that year in Philadelphia, where he would spend the rest of his life. (This summary was taken from Nicholas B. Wainright’s article “Augustus Kollner, Artist” published June 1960 in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. That is also the source of Köllner’s picture, above)

As to his picture “Tiber Creek, North east of the Capitol,” the tracks are those of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and in particular the Washington branch, which connected the capital with Baltimore. It had opened on August 25, 1835. The track entered the city at 10th and Boundary Streets Northeast (Boundary is Florida Avenue today) and then snaked its way southwest to its terminus at Second Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest.

Detail of the Augustus Köllner print “Tiber Creek, North east of the Capitol. (LOC)

The engine shown is probably the Lafayette, built in 1837 by the Norris Locomotive Works in Pennsylvania. The Lafayette was used on the Washington spur of the B&O railroad in passenger service, and the description of the cars it pulled, “small closed coaches,” fits with the drawing. A replica of the Lafayette was built in 1927 and was used in numerous movies, including “Amistad.”

The B&O tracks crossed the Tiber Creek just before its terminus, at First and C Streets northwest, but also a branch of the Tiber that extended to 12th and G Streets Northeast. It is probably the latter that is depicted in the picture, as the crossing is at Delaware Avenue between E and F Streets Northeast.

If you want to see the exact location today, that is easy: It is pretty much exactly where the taxi stand in front of Union Station is today. While you will not be far from the trains at that point, it is extremely unlikely that you will see any cattle –gamboling or not– or horses.

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