Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hell on DC-Area Roads, Civil War-Style

Commuting in the Washington, DC metro region is certainly no walk in the park.  My daily drive of nine miles home from the city can take up to an hour or more on any given day.  Washington consistently wins top honors for having the worst traffic in the country.  And bad weather like snow turns the roads into a sheer commuter nightmare.  The study of history, however, often puts things in perspective, and that certainly was the case when I came across a Civil War-era account of a trip over roughly the same route I follow everyday.

In January 1862, Hugh Young, the editor of the Wellsboro (Pa.) Agitator, came to Washington City.  He intended to pay a visit to the Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley.  Going to the Old Dominion in those days required a military pass, so Young headed first to the Provost Marshal's Office.  Here, "with the assistance of a line . . . vouching for our loyalty" from Speaker of the House Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, he procured "a pass into the land of Dixie." 

Young headed next to the Langley Stage Office at the Clay Hotel to find transportation across the Potomac to the camps.  From the hotel situated on Pennsylvania Avenue between 3rd and 4 1/2 Streets,* a "diligence" or "long covered wagon with hard seats" ran the eight miles to Langley twice a day for a fare of one dollar.  The editor boarded the wagon with his traveling companion and around a dozen others.  Now the fun really began.

As Young described the journey:
. . . soon we were on the road to the Chain Bridge. And such a road! Properly speaking, it was a canal filled to the depth of six to twelve inches with a sloshy mud, through which the horses waded with a slow and patient gait.**

Section of 1862 Union Army map of N.E. Virginia and the Vicinity of Washington showing likely route taken by Young from the Clay Hotel in Washington to Langley, Virginia (courtesy of Library of Congress).  A modern view of approximately the same route can be found here.

Along the way, soldiers stopped the wagon to examine the passengers' passes, likely causing additional delay.  The last check occurred at the entrance to the Chain Bridge.  Incredibly, the editor recognized the soldier as a Simon Doorlacher from Wellsboro, who was serving with the Tioga Invincibles, or Company H of the 6th Pennsylvania Reserves.  After crossing Chain Bridge, the wagon headed up the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike and traveled a few more miles to Langley, where it was already "quite dark."  All told, Young seemed pleased that the trip had taken "just four hours."

"Washington, D.C. Chain Bridge over the Potomac; Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in foreground (courtesy of Library of Congress)
My own route home is very similar, but starts a little further west at 17th and G Streets, N.W.  I avoid the heart of the city and Georgetown by taking the Whitehurst Freeway and drive along Canal Road until I hit Chain Bridge.  Rt. 123 on the other side takes me to a point just beyond Langley.  This route can be nerve-wracking and time-consuming, but I have nothing on the editor of the Agitator.  The next time I feel myself becoming annoyed and impatient with my commute, I will think back 150 years and remember that things could be much worse.

*Today, 4 1/2 Street, N.W. does not intersect with Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.  The hotel was likely located around the present-day site of the Federal Courthouse.

**The diligence probably traveled through the streets of Washington City, most likely Pennsylvania Avenue, and into Georgetown. From there, it may have taken the carriage road along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to Chain Bridge. John G. Barnard, former chief engineer to the Army of the Potomac, described this carriage road as "excellent" in his report on the defenses of Washington.  (Barnard 2.)  The editor of the Agitator may have disagreed with him on this point!

John G. Barnard, A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army (1871); Johnson's Map of Georgetown and the City of Washington, 1862; Washington National Republican, Mar. 4, 1862; Wellsboro (Pa.) Agitator, Jan. 29, 1862.

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