Hidden Washington: Tiber Creek

Tiber Creek (or Goose Creek) is not something many people talk about much any more, much less know about, despite its importance to the early development of Washington. When one does read about the Tiber, the area most frequently referenced is the downtown section that eventually became part of the canal and was finally entombed as an underground sewer beneath Constitution Avenue along the Mall.

In the early days of the city, the Tiber’s banks were covered with large trees and bushes. The creek also provided anglers with shad, herring, eels, pike, catfish, perch, and other fish as far upstream as Pennsylvania Avenue and Second Street, NW.

According to Garnett P. Williams in his study on Washington’s vanishing springs and waterways (1977), the Tiber was a “formidable stream that drained about half of the original District of Columbia area. The headwaters began as little rills about 3 1/2 miles north of the Capitol. Many such little branches originated along Rock Creek Church Road in the northern part of the present U.S. Soldiers Home; others began a bit southeastward from that area, for example, in the vicinity of Catholic University and at the approximate neighborhood of the present Rhode Island and Montana Avenues, NE.”

Just inside the Soldiers’ Home’s fence along Rock Creek Church Road, NW, one can still see the bricked channel of the Tiber’s headwaters

James F. Duhamel (1923) also credits the Soldiers’ Home as the headwaters of the Tiber, noting that the “small stream that … feeds the lake at the west side of the Soldiers’ Home grounds and near the [Park Road] gate may be regarded as the headwaters of this historic stream.” The two lakes east of the gate are still quite evident, and anyone looking for evidence of the stream along Rock Creek Church Road will have no trouble finding it. The sidewalk along Rock Creek Church Road at the intersection of Shepherd Street is frequently wet due to the creek, and just inside the fence one can quickly identify the brick-lined stream-bed.

Going back to Williams, he describes the entire Tiber system thusly:

Flowing generally southward, the little rivulets gradually joined ranks and formed into larger branches. Four main branches were well developed as the flows reached Boundary Street (Florida Avenue). From west to east, these branches crossed Boundary Street at Eighth Street [NW] (Reedy Branch), First Street [NW], Second Street [NE], and 11th Street [NE], respectively. The two western branches came together on “O” Street between North Capitol Street and First Street [NW], forming a channel no more than about 10 feet wide. Several blocks farther near M Street, just west of First Street [NE] the third branch added its waters to the stream. From this point on, the Tiber flowed southward between North Capitol Street and First Street, [NE], crossing back over North Capitol at E Street and then southwesterly, reaching B Street (Constitution Avenue) at Second Street, [NW]. Meanwhile, the fourth main branch had combined with the stream on Massachusetts Avenue, just east of North Capitol Street, in the area now covered by Union Station.

Perhaps the best way to show the extent of the Tiber Creek system is with the 1861 Boschke map (considered one of the best early maps of Washington). Below is a portion of the Boschke map with the Tiber system highlighted.

Detail of the Boschke map with Tiber Creek highlighted

In looking at the detail of the map, one can quickly see that it was the largest stream system in the District. While the 1861 Boschke map no longer shows the mouth of the Tiber, one can get an idea from this description, again from Williams:

 … the channel started widening dramatically until it reached the base of the White House lawn where the mouth of the system met the Potomac and measured between 700 and 800 feet wide.

By 1870, however, the Tiber was in very bad condition due to deforestation along its banks and its use as an open sewer. This set the stage for the territorial government’s Board of Public Works (1871-74) to take action. The Board, along with the city commissioners who governed immediately afterward, instituted massive city-wide improvement programs that filled in the canal and transformed the Tiber south of Florida Avenue into an underground sewer — largely completed by 1880.

By 1903, as seen in this detail from the Baist’s real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia (v.3), most of the Tiber’s headwaters drained into the new reservoir

Sources:

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia : Complete in Three Volumes (compiled and published from official records, private plans, and actual surveys by G. Wm. Baist, topographical engineer), Philadelphia, G.W. Baist, (1903).

Boschke, A., Topographical map of the District of Columbia, surveyed in the years 1856 ’57 ’58 & ’59, Washington, D.C.,  engraved by D. McClelland, (1861).

Duhamel, James F., “Tiber Creek,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 28 (1926), pp. 203-225.

McElhannony, Raymond J., “Course of Tiber Creek,” The Washington Times, (Feb. 7, 1915), p. 6.

Williams, Garnett P., Washington, D.C.’s Vanishing Springs and Waterways, [Washington, D.C.] United States Department of the Interior (1977),  (Geological Survey Circular 752).

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5 Comments on “Hidden Washington: Tiber Creek”

  1. chix Says:

    I love to read about kit widely knownfaxts of the history of our city. Thanks for this.

  2. Dianne Says:

    Thanks for this Kent! I did know about the Tiber Creek and it is interesting to read about this part of our city’s history.

  3. IMGoph Says:

    as always, kent, you do a bang-up job. thank you so much!


  4. […] I was doing research on Tiber Creek I came across a passage in Garnett Williams’ Washington, D.C.’s Vanishing Springs and […]

  5. Kim Williams Says:

    Really interesting and fantastic photo of the bricklined Tiber Creek bed. Thanks!


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