12 Sep 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: The original Tunnicliff’s in the 19th Century

William Easby

While I have previously written of William Tunnicliff’s original hotel on Capitol Hill and have briefly touched on its much later use, I have never told the full story, a story that is sadly fragmented. Over the next few weeks, I will pull together those fragments to the best of my ability.

After Tunnicliff moved his operations closer to the Capitol the building at 9th and Pennsylvania continued to be occupied. This is hardly surprising, as it was a sturdy brick building, which was a rarity in the early days of Washington. A later inhabitant described how it was built: “The foundation and basement of the house are three feet thick. It was thirty-six feet broad and the same depth, massively built. It might stand a siege.”

Some of those who lived in it were the second and third commandants of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant Colonel William W. Burrows and Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Wharton. The latter would be the first to live in the Marine Commandants house, while the former was the first de jure commandant of the Marine Corps (Major Samuel Nicholas, who had led the corps during the Revolutionary War was just the highest ranking officer in that branch, but is today considered the first commandant)

Advertisement in the Daily National Intelligencer of sale of the old Tunniclliffs in 1808 (LOC)

After Wharton moved into the commandants house, it was lived in by Thomas Carbery–– no, not the more famous Carbery, who would later become mayor of Washington, but his father. Carbery junior was about 17 when his father lived there, so it is quite likely that the future mayor lived there, as well.

During this time, the owners seem to have been Tristram Dalton and Josiah Fox. The former was one of the many rich men who flocked to the nascent capital to increase their fortunes – and lost it all. The latter was a part of a new breed of Capitol Hill residents – those who came to work in the Navy Yard. A British-born and educated Naval constructor, Fox started off at the Gosport navy yard, but moved to the D.C. Navy Yard early in the new century. He was responsible for the construction of President Thomas Jefferson’s gunboats.

Sadly, the records of the time do not indicate whether he lived in house or not. If he did so, it was not for long, as he bought it in 1808 and by 1811, due to differences with Navy Yard commandant Thomas Tingey, he had been fired from his job and decamped to Ohio.

Who lived there during the Burning of Washington is unknown, but the story goes that it was in one of the “cubbyholes” under the roof that one of those who fought to save the city breathed his last. “In this room was a deep spot on the floor which could not be removed, where they said a man wounded by the British in 1814 had bled to death.”

The next known owner was William Easby, who moved in in 1821. Easby was also connected with the Navy Yard, where he was a master builder. However, in 1829, he moved west to Georgetown, where he built a private shipyard near the mouth of the C & O canal, which was then being built. After his sons took over this operation in 1848, he moved back to the old Tunnicliffs, which he called Warwick.

His daughter, Wilhelmine, who is responsible for the previous stories, also mentions that he bought up the rest of Square 925, including some land that had belonged to none other than Michael Shiner.

Easby died in 1854, but the house remained in the family until Wilhelmine’s brother Horatio sold it.

Next week: A den of infamy.

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