The small shops and restaurants lining M and Wisconsin streets have helped establish Georgetown as one of D.C.’s most fashionable areas. The neighborhood has everything to satisfy expensive tastes-from fine dining, suits and leather jackets to $100-something Diesel jeans. But Georgetown has a history much longer than the lines in Banana Republic and has not always been the tourist and shopper attraction that it is today.
“Primarily, Georgetown was a true blue collar community up until the 1930s, 1940s,” said historian Jerry McCoy at the Peabody Collection, materials housed in the Georgetown Public Library devoted to preserving Georgetown’s history. “In fact, up until the early 20th century, if you told somebody you lived in Georgetown that would not evoke any sort of ‘ooh, you live in Georgetown,'” McCoy said. “It was just another grimy, industrial neighborhood.”
Georgetown history begins before the existence of the city of Washington. The Maryland assembly established Georgetown, Md. in 1751 before becoming a part of the District when it was established in 1790.
Founded by Scottish settlers, Georgetown was originally a tobacco port.
“This was about as far up the Potomac as you could navigate with ships,” McCoy said, “So it was just the natural place to be able to establish a community where your tobacco farmers in Maryland were able to come down from the North.”
The port was at the mouth of Rock Creek, which now looks like a rocky stream but was once navigable up to about the M Street Bridge, McCoy said.
“You look at Rock Creek today and you just can’t imagine anything a canoe could maybe go up, but that would have to be after a heavy rain,” he said.
While it did conduct trade with England, the port was a prime location for trade with other port cities along the East Coast including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. Any kind of merchandise could be imported from these larger East Coast port cities. Georgetown’s only other local competition was the Alexandria port, located only a few miles down the river.
McCoy describes early Georgetown as “the outpost of civility for the early presidents,” including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“This is where they came to visit friends, have fine dinners and have overnight accommodation. There certainly weren’t places in the city of Washington to do likewise,” McCoy said.
One of old Georgetown’s most famous residents was Francis Scott Key, the lawyer and poet who authored The Star Spangled Banner. He lived on M Street, directly across from the Car Barn building today, by the Key Bridge.
Although it was a home and attraction for early American leaders, Georgetown was still a dirty working class town.
Flour mills, industrial and concrete plants crowded Georgetown because of its access to power from the river. The amount of production resulted in tremendous pollution, making it less than fashionable to say you lived in Georgetown, McCoy said.
Until the mid-1800’s, Georgetown stretched only about three or four blocks north, reaching only as far as P Street. Everything past that was farmland. Like today, the intersection of M and Wisconsin streets was the heart of the community, where shops were located and goods were sold. M Street, at the time, was called Bridge Street and Wisconsin was named High Street because it went up the hill. At the time, Georgetown and the other District neighborhoods, such as Foggy Bottom, were small communities each surrounded by farmland.
“You had little pockets of development all over the city,” McCoy said.
The end of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 20th century signaled the end of old Georgetown and the beginning of the neighborhood as it is today.
In the 1870’s, the District government paved the streets and established streetcar lines up and down Wisconsin Street and along P and O streets. The streetcars were a major impetus for development, helping connect Georgetown to other parts of the city and making travel downtown easier. A few remnants of streetcar tracks can be found even now, imbedded in the remaining stone roads in Georgetown.
But it was during former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s that the face of Georgetown changed most dramatically. Investors realized the value in restoring the neighborhood’s historical houses, which were built in the 1700’s and early 1800’s and were nearly falling apart. The investors poured money into the houses, refurbishing them and attracting a new wave of Georgetown residents.
As Georgetown was redeveloped, some of its most valuable historical artifacts were also destroyed. For example, when the Whitehurst Freeway was being built in 1948, the nearby Francis Scott Key house was dismantled and its pieces were stored underneath the Key Bridge. The National Park Service planned to reconstruct the house close to its original location, but after failing to secure it, people broke in and stole the bricks and stone.
“I’m convinced today, as are a lot of other people, that many patios in Georgetown backyards are probably former pieces of the Francis Scott Key house,” McCoy said.
So what has changed the most in Georgetown in the 20th century?
“Certainly the real estate prices,” McCoy said. “When I look at these ads of what houses would have gone for in the 1950s and 40s, they’re usually $100,000, $150,000, which was lot of money in the 40s and 50s. But today these same properties are going for $1.5 million and I think that’s probably the biggest change.”
Today, it is harder to find signs of Georgetown’s past. Most of the remaining evidence of Georgetown’s history can only be found in the Peabody Collection.
But luckily, Georgetown residents have an appreciation for their neighborhood’s history and try to maintain its old-town feel.
“I think it looks very 19th century with its origins, which I greatly admire the community for,” says McCoy. “I think it’s really incredible that the people who live here value that history.”