Public transportation options between Washington City and Alexandria abound in 2018, but they all depend on land routes and the burning of fossil fuels.
This week, in honor of Presidents’ Day, we look back two centuries to a time before Metro, when a trip to Alexandria could be made by water, was powered by wind and cost a quarter.
The following account of such a trip is found in an 1814 letter written by Massachusetts congressman Abijah Bigelow to his wife, Hannah Gardner Bigelow. Bigelow’s letters to Hannah, written from Washington between 1810 and 1815 when he served in the House of Representatives, were published in 1930 by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. Bigelow, a lawyer who lived from 1775 to 1860, was a 1795 graduate of Dartmouth. As a congressman, he was a member of the Federalist Party and a strong opponent of the War of 1812.
The trip to Alexandria here described was made in a vessel called a packet boat. Packet boats provided regularly scheduled transportation for passengers and freight in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bigelow attended Sunday services at Christ Church, an Episcopal parish in Old Town Alexandria that still meets in the same building where Bigelow – and President George Washington – worshipped. According to the parish website, the Rev. Oliver Norris was rector of the church from 1813 to 1825.
The text of Bigelow’s letter follows:
WASHINGTON March 21, 1814
I went yesterday, Sunday, in company with Col. Mosely to Alexandria. Several reasons induced me to go. One was to get out of the limits of the city of Washington, within which I have been so long confined, that it seems almost like a prison. Another was, for the benefit of exercise, which is very necessary; for of all situations, none has a greater tendency to render a man idle and inactive, than that of being a member of Congress, in such a place as Washington. Another was to call on Mr. and Mrs. Reed, from Bolton, before I returned, and another to attend meeting, where I could hear better preaching than at Washington.
As I know of nothing which will be more interesting, I will give you an account of my tour there and back. I rose early in the morning, shaved and dressed myself, and immediately after breakfast walked to the wharf near the Navy Yard, about a mile southeasterly of the Capitol, where the Alexandria packet lies. As there were but five passengers, the owner of the packet hesitated about going, but finally concluded, if we would pay as much more each than the usual fare, as to make him up six passengers, he would go. As this was but a trifling sum, the usual price for a passenger being twenty five cents, and the addition required being but five cents each, we readily agreed to it.
The morning was very mild, clear and pleasant, like a fine May morning, when there is not a cloud to be seen in the whole expanse of the horizon. When the packet started from the wharf, there was very little wind, and that, as the sailors say, dead ahead, that is blowing directly against us.
We had not, however, been out many minutes, before the master of the packet discovered that the wind was shifting, and spread out all his sails to have the benefit of it. He had scarcely got his sails out, before the violence of the wind was such, that he was obliged to haul down his top, and reef his main sail. It blew harder and harder, and I confess, for a few minutes, I felt a little alarmed.
Finding however that the wind was with us, that the master understood his business, and had got his sails secured, I felt pretty quiet, altho’ the packet rocked, and bounded up and down with the waves, rather more than suited my fancy. We went, however, very rapidly, not being much more than half an hour in sailing to Alexandria, a distance by water of about five miles.
I was not sorry when I got ashore at Alexandria, for the wind still blew very hard, and filled the air with the dust of the street, so that it was uncomfortable walking. We went to Mr. Catlett’s, a gentleman with whom we were acquainted, and were in good season for church. He received us very cordially, and we went with him and his wife to church, and had the honor to sit in the same pew which was formerly owned by General Washington, and which he used to occupy, Alexandria being the place where he attended public worship. We had a very serious, moral discourse from Mr. Norris, an Episcopalian, and the singing was very good.
After meeting, Mr. Catlett went with me to Mr. Reed’s. I found them in the plain New England style, in a very comfortable house, which he informed me he rented for forty pounds a year.
Soon after meeting, instead of returning by water, we walked back to Washington, a distance, by land, of about seven and a half miles, and arrived there about half after seven in the evening. The road was very good, the wind had gone down, and I felt very little fatigue from the walk. Our friends were glad to see us safe back, for they said they felt alarmed for us, as they supposed we were in the packet, when the wind blew so hard.
Alexandria is in every respect a better place than Washington, it is a place of vastly more business, and if the country could be rid of War, Embargo, Nonintercourse, etc. would be a very thriving place.
A second letter from Bigelow describes Washington as it appeared two months after the Capitol and White House were burned by the British following the disastrous Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 25, 1814.
The bitter criticism of the presidential administration then in power found in the closing lines of the letter has a curiously contemporary ring. This second letter will round out our historical excursion to the Washington of two centuries ago in the company of Congressman Bigelow.
WASHINGTON CITY, October 2, 1814
This place looks melancholy enough. The walls of the two wings of the Capitol remain, but the inside is completely burnt out, and will probably be tumbling down.
The house occupied by Gallatin [now the Sewell-Belmont House on Capitol Hill] is completely destroyed, nothing but a few of the brick walls remaining. The British passed directly by it on their entrance into the City, and being fired on from the windows ordered it destroyed.
Tomlinson’s hotel which stood nearer the Capitol is also completely destroyed, as is also a house occupied by Mrs. Hamilton, in which I lodged the first winter I was at Washington. This house, some say the British burnt, others that it was burnt by the wretches who plundered it. This is the principal injury done on what is called Capitol Hill, and no injury was done on the Pennsylvania Avenue leading to the Presidential house, about a mile and a half, except the destruction of Gale’s types, etc. [Joseph Gales was the publisher of ‘The National Intelligencer’ newspaper. The British burned the newspaper’s type and presses.]
The Presidential house, built of stone, like that of the wings of the Capitol, has its outside walls remaining, but the inside is thoroughly burnt, and much of the furniture in the house was burnt with it. The long brick buildings on each side of it, at the distance of about 20 rods [330 feet], which were occupied by the different departments of government, are also thoroughly burnt.
Both ends of the fine bridge over the Potomac are also burnt – the end on the Alexandria side by our people, that on Washington side by the British. I have not been to the Navy Yard which was burnt, nor to the fort on Greenleaf’s Point [Buzzard Point in Southwest] which was blown up, by order from the Secretary of the Navy. The other ruins I have seen.
The British officers rode about the City with as little apprehension of danger, as if they were in their own country, and Admiral Cockburn rode alone, through Pennsylvania Avenue, and without pistols, stopping frequently and conversing with the citizens. A number of women gathered round and expressed fears for their safety. He told them to be quiet, they should be more safe under his administration, than that of little Jemmy’s [a term of contempt used by James Madison’s political enemies].
I regret very much that the valuable library belonging to Congress was burnt, as I want the use of it. I regret also the other destruction which has been made, but not so much as I should, had not the hall of Congress been the scene of so much wickedness, had not the men in power perverted the principles of the Constitution to serve their own base purposes, and had they not made so cowardly and miserable a defence as they did.
Bigelow’s letters to his wife can be found on the website of the American Antiquarian Society, americanantiquarian.org.