24 Jan 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: The Navy Yard in 1806

Last week, we looked at visitor Charles William Janson’s rather dour view of Washington D.C. in 1806. Continuing on in this vein, we look today at one part of the city which he has some positive words to say about. Well, one positive word. Which is also misspelled:

The only part of this city which continues to encrease [sic] is the navy-yard, but this circumstance is entirely owing to the few ships of war which the Americans have in commission, being ordered there to be fitted out and paid off. Tippling shops, and houses of rendezvous for sailors and their doxies, with a number of the lowest order of traders, substitute what is called the navy-yard.

His comment on “houses of rendezvous” would be echoed almost 150 years later in Lait and Mortimer’s book Washington Confidential. The truth, both in 1806 and 1951, was that the area around the Navy Yard, due to its proximity to a major industrial site, was neither the finest or most bucolic area of town, but still a bustling neighborhood with a wide variety of residents and businesses. The number of young sailors attached to the installations in the area certainly meant some businesses had to cater to their baser instincts, and this should come as a surprise to nobody. Nonetheless, for many others, this was home – and not just to the “lowest order of traders.”

The USS Congress in 1815. It was with this ship that the Tunisian Embassy had originally crossed the Atlantic. The ship was thereafter put into ordinary at the Washington Navy Yard, one of the vessels Janson observed there. (Historic New England)

Janson then goes on for some pages on races that he observed in Georgetown before returning to the Navy Yard:

On my last visit to the navy yard, I found six frigates, dismantled and laid up in ordinary, and one nearly equipped for sea, for the purpose of carrying back the Tunisian embassy to Barbary, A small vessel of war, pierced for 20 guns, had just been launched.

While the author may have had a fairly negative attitude towards the city he was visiting, his scholarship is not at all bad. The Navy Yard was indeed used to store currently unused ships; “laid up in ordinary” would today be “mothballed.” Keeping a ship in fighting shape was (and is!) a constant battle against the forces of entropy. It was easier to remove rigging and sails and letting a ship sit in the water and then, if once again needed, refit it for battle, than to keep up with the constant maintenance otherwise needed. Thomas Jefferson took the idea one step further, suggesting that the ships should be removed from the water entirely when not in use.

The ship Janson describes as being readied for the trip to Tunis was the brig Franklin, which had been built in 1795. However, when the leader of the embassy saw it, he recognized it as a ship that had been captured by Tripolitan corsairs in 1802, who then sold it to the Bey of Tunis. It would thus not do as a vessel for the voyage home. The Tunisian envoy Mellimelli and his entourage ended up traveling on the private ship Two Brothers, captained by John Candler – that’s him, above.

Finally, the ship described as “pierced for 20 guns” was the 18-gun Wasp, which was also the first ship built at Washington Navy Yard.

Next week: Making fun of Jefferson.

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