Meet Me Down in Pipetown

By now, most Washingtonians have heard of Swampoodle, the historic Irish neighborhood that was destroyed by the construction of Union Station.  But what about The Island?  Pipetown?  Bloody Hill and Bloodfield (“the ancient feudal ground of the southwest”)?  These were all names of Washington, D.C. neighborhoods during the decades of the 1800’s following the end of the Civil War.

Post-war D.C. was a rough place.  According to one government official interviewed in the Post in 1902, “Washington passed through its period of lawlessness and disorder fully as bad, if not worse, than that which prevailed in Cripple Creek, Colo. or Tombstone, Ariz.”

…Small fields of corn and cabbage gardens were scattered  about everywhere, many of them within a stone’s throw of the Capitol, while cows had the run of the town from Georgetown to Anacostia Creek, grazing on the pavements, breaking into front yards, disturbing the slumbers of the citizens by their incessant lowing, and making themselves generally obnoxious.  I recollect there use to be a brick yard at Ninth and O streets northwest and not far distant was a cornfield inclosed [sic] by a stake and rider fence…

The war had ended, leaving stranded in this city a vast horde of enfranchised slaves, discharged soldiers, and a cloud of riffraff, bummers, and camp followers…and their arrival soon made this city one of the most disorderly places in America.  Fights, murders, stabbing, and shooting scrapes were of daily occurrence…

The neighborhoods with the most infamous conditions had nicknames that were never shown on any official plat.  But the Washington Post put together this amazing map on its 50 anniversary to show the neighborhoods that existed when the paper was founded in 1877.

Map of Washington as the city appeared in 1877 when the Post was founded...The old nicknames for various portions of the city also are shown. Photo by historic Washington Post.

Hell’s Bottom, a former “contraband camp” extending irregularly from 7th to 14th Streets NW, and from O Street to the Boundary (i.e. Florida Avenue), was one of the most notorious sections of the city.  Living conditions were poor and crime was high. According to a Post article from 1897, some Hell’s Bottom residents lived in shanties the size of a “hall-room”, with roofs so low that an average person could only stand upright on one side. These homes, which could house up to 3 families, were of “the rudest possible construction, few having any sashes in the window aperture, a board shutter closing out the cold winds, light and ventilation together, when shut.  The only salvation from suffocation lies in the gaping cracks existing round the doors and windows, without which many a family would doubtless be found dead in the morning of cold nights.”

Keith Sutherland, an old Hell’s Bottom inhabitant, said this about the neighborhood in a 1900 Post article: “‘Money was scarce and whisky [sic] was cheap –- a certain sort of whisky –- and the combination resulted in giving the place the name which it held for so many years. The police force was small. There was no police court, and the magistrates before whom offenders were brought rarely fixed the penalty at more than $2. Crime and lawlessness grew terribly, and a man had to fight, whenever he went into the ‘Bottom.’”  The police were unable to control the crime and violence in Hell’s Bottom, and so in 1891, the city refused to renew any of the neighborhood’s liquor licenses.  It was this act that finally led to the neighborhood’s improvement.

Murder Bay: The area east of the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue was known for its brothels, gambling, and crime.  It was sometimes called “Hooker’s Division” (see the great comments on THIS post for more details).

The "red light district" known as Murder Bay at the corner of C Street NW and 13th Street NW, April 1912. Griffin Veatch, a "night messenger" or child laborer who directed customers to brothels, is leaning against the tree at left. Photograph by Lewis W. Hine for the U.S. National Child Labor Committee.

White Chapel: A dirty alley between 24th and 25th Streets, and M and N Streets, NW.  During the 1880’s, there was almost constant warfare between the residents of this area and the police.

Pipetown: East of 11th Street SE to the Anacostia River, this neighborhood was made famous by Pipetown Sandy (1905), John Philip Sousa’s semi-autobiographical young adult novel about the neighborhood where he grew up.  Pipetown was described in one Post article as “a community of extensive commons, of ash dumps, of tumble-down houses and shacks of nondescript architecture, a place where goats browsed among the tomato cans and the travelling fair pitched its weather-beaten tent.”

Bloodfield: This neighborhood was “a vague name for the entire region around the James Creek Canal” (which started near 2nd Street SW at Buzzard’s Point), and one of the most dangerous and notorious slums in the city.  Arrest attempts by police (who would only walk their beat in pairs) resulted in injury or worse to the officer or the resident:

Policeman Muller was attracted to the Shears house by the shooting, and when he arrived there he found Shears lying dead on the floor of the kitchen having been shot in the left temple.  Curry was covered with blood from head to foot and gave evidence of having had a terrible struggle.  His badge was smeared with blood and his coat was saturated with it.

Brothels, illegal speakeasies, and tough characters filled the neighborhood:

A steel corset stay, pointed and sharpened into a dangerous weapon, was used in an affray early yesterday evening…

Sergt. Daley, of the Fourth Precinct, was abroad in Bloodfield with his raiding clothes on last night, and, as a result, a number of alleged disorderly houses were closed up…

As the city and police force grew, the neighborhood calmed, but it retained its name up to the 20’s.

Cowtown: A neighborhood located north of Hell’s Bottom and west of 7th Street, NW.

The Island: This swath of land south of the Mall was so-called because it was cut off from the rest of mainland D.C. by the canal.

I’d much rather live in Hell’s Bottom than Logan Circle, wouldn’t you?


This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.

6 thoughts on “Meet Me Down in Pipetown

  1. Pingback: Three Tales from Hell's Bottom - Ghosts of DC

  2. Pingback: Washington’s Rough-and-Tumble Lost Neighborhood of Murder Bay « Ghosts of DC

  3. Pingback: District Line Daily: Don’t Put Your Weed In There, Mike Daisey At Georgetown - City Desk

  4. Mark

    Thanks for dredging up some of the grand old neighborhood names. A minor point – there were at least 4 Cowtowns, depending on the period: the one near LeDroit Park, which you cited, one near P and North Capitol, one in or around Prather’s Alley (4th, 5th, I and K NW) and one on the Island.

    Other great forgotten Washington toponyms include Frogtown (several), Buzzard’s Roost, Goose Level, Scum Alley, Noah’s Ark, Ryder’s Castle, Rodbird’s Hill, Louse Alley and Bear’s Gap.

  5. Pingback: Morning Links: Make it Big - Housing Complex

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