Monday, July 7, 2014

Most people don't realize that the Potomac River forms the southwest boundary of the District of Columbia. The other three sides of the city are on land, in Maryland. Just about a third of the city, however, is cut off by another river -- the Anacostia -- which flows northeast-to-southwest through the city. West of the Anacostia is "Washington, D.C.", while "east of the river" might as well be another world. It's 99 percent black, and overwhelmingly poor.

Where the Anacostia runs into the Potomac, the Potomac shifts due south. There's a low, flat floodplain here that extends about 1,000 yards inland. Most of it is currently occupied by Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, but it used to be farmland until the air and naval bases were constructed in the 1920s.

Inland, a long line of high bluffs exists. They begin about where the 11th Street Bridges cross the Anacostia, and extend in a south-southeast line almost to the city's border. During the Civil War, a series of forts were established at regular intervals along these bluffs to protect the "city proper". (There were almost no homes or businesses east of the river until the 1870s, just farms.) Had the Confederates somehow held the heights, they could have reduced the city to rubble. Instead, the Union held them. No fighting ever occurred here, and no shots were fired in anger. But that is more a testament to "Fortress Washington" than anything else.

About a quarter of the way south along this line of bluffs, the bluffs widen out into what is a kind of a small butte, or plateau.

On this plateau, in 1855, the federal government built the country's first hospital for the mentally ill, St. Elizabeths. (No apostrophe.) It was originally called the Government Hospital for the Insane, but it was renamed for the tract of land it sat on in 1916. (The original name of the area came from land patents issued by King Charles II of England.)

Because much of the lowland north, northwest, and west of the bluffs on which St. E's sat was farmland, and there were no buildings of more than two stories, the view from the mental hospital was one of the most stunning in the entire area.

This is what it looked like in the late 1800s. This photo was taken while standing on the grounds of St. E's, looking northwest at the city. Shortly after this photo was taken, extensive developments occurred "east of the river" in places like Uniontown (now Historic Anacostia), Barry Farm, Congress Heights, and Randle Highlands, which began obstructing the view. The vast redevelopment of Southwest D.C. (which was completely levelled in the 1950s) led to the construction of high-rise office buildings and apartments and Federal Center Southeast, which further obstructed the view.

Today, standing at St. E's, you can't see anything.

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