18 Sep 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: Michael Shiner at Eastern Market

A few years ago, I looked at a few incidents of the life of Michael Shiner, who was born enslaved in Southern Maryland and brought to D.C. Here he was forced to work at the Navy Yard and observed the burning of Washington in 1814; he was later freed, but continued to work for the Navy through the Civil War.

He is best known for keeping a diary/memoir, and his writings are fascinating insights into life on the Hill in its earliest days.

While Shiner ended his writings in 1865, he lived for another 15 years and was an important figure in this transformative era. He became a force in Republican politics, and may have – as we will see today – delayed the opening of Eastern Market back in 1873.

After Congress had appropriated money to build the market, there seemed to be no further hindrances to its completion. Proposals for its building were published in the late summer, and by September 1871, a number of bids had been received. The winning bid came from Henry Wingate, and by April of the following year, the Washington Evening Star reported that the building was “rapidly approaching completion.”

And then…nothing. It was not until late June of 1873 that anything about the new market was published, and this was the announcement of an act for the “sale and rent” of stalls in it.

The first grumbling that something was awry appeared in the Star in early August. Someone signing themselves Eli Perkins (although nobody with this name is listed in the city directories of the time) wrote a letter requesting that Eastern Branch Market be closed and the new market opened:

I am informed that the contractor has been ready and willing for some time to open our new market, but the powers that be say no; wait till October, the stalls will sell higher.

He ended by saying that if this was not soon done, the people would rise up and take it out on the market committee “or send Mike Shiner to the legislature.”

A detail of an 1880 picture taken from the top of the Capitol showing Eastern Market (LOC)

Another letter in the Star, signed by someone as ‘Twenty-first District” and written two months later with the accusation that it was none other than Shiner who was (at least partly) responsible for the delay in opening:

The Eastern market building, of goodly proportions, stands completed, but occupied a carpenter shop in the day-time and for political meetings at night, under the care and control of Mike Shinar. [sic]

So— which was it? Was Shiner the guy who could have gotten the market open more quickly, or was he responsible for its slow opening? We will never know exactly, for a month later – after another delay due to Wingate’s refusal to pay those building the stalls for the simple reason that he had not been paid – the market opened to everyone’s satisfaction.

All of this adds an intriguing footnote in the life of a Hill resident who already is one of the more fascinating characters in its long history.

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