Washington City when the Old Capitol Prison Opened (1861)
When the Old Capitol Prison was opened by the Lincoln Administration, in 1861, Washington City had a greatly different look than it does today. While that Capitol building had long been restored, after the burning by the British, it lacked the dome as we know it today. The Washington Monument, at the other end of the mall, had the appearance of being frozen in time, only being built to one third of its eventual height. The red sandstone Smithsonian “Castle” stood as a lone edifice, with its turrets reaching to the sky, high enough to serve to see the troops across the river at Arlington House, from the top of the tallest turret.
Down the middle of what we know now as the National Mall were two features that the modern visitor would find a complete surprise. A railroad line ran down the mall, not far from the canal that also ran down the mall. While no remnants of the railroad exist today, Constitution Ave. runs down what was the canal, in places; old buildings, associated with the canal, can be seen to this day, beside Constitution Ave.
If you had approached the federal city from Virginia, it’s a good chance that you would have traveled, on foot or by horse across Long Bridge, a wooden structure that spanned the Potomac River from the base of Arlington to Washington. The bridge of 1861 was not the first one, but just one of many, due, in large part, to the fact that the base of the bridge was a mere inches above the river. During the late winter or early spring, it was not all that unusual to have ice flows; large chunks of ice jamming up against the bridge, not unlike a log jam, and taking out parts of the bridge, making the bridge uncrossable until it was fixed or replaced.
You may have also arrived at Washington by steamer. Steamboats and other watercraft arrived at the Sixth Street Wharf. The steamboats and the Sixth Street Wharf will play important roles, over the years, in the story of the Old Capitol Prison.
Land around the United States Capitol lacked the intense development of today, but there were areas were nice and not so nice boardinghouses stood, as well as saloons, houses of “entertainment,” and Federal offices. Certain individuals from each of these establishments, including the Federal offices, were destined to spend time, not of their choice, in the prison, as “guests” of the Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of State Seward, through their minions, Capt. Baker, Head of the U.S. Secret Service, and Superintendent Wood, Old Capitol Prison.
Immediately surrounding both the Old Capitol Prison (and its sister and annex prison, Carroll Prison), were large blocks of limestone and marble. These blocks were of various shapes and sizes, some taller than an average man, were materials for the completion of the nearby Capitol. These blocks are to play a part in some of the stories of the prison that we will tell in future blogs.