Incredible images of Washington, DC before it was a city

Library of CongressEaster at the White House, Washington, DC, 1926.

Before Washington, DC became the capital city of the United States, it was a sprawling, 100-square-mile plot of plantations, forests, and hills.

The city’s urban plan was the brainchild of French immigrant and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who envisioned an egalitarian design for the District – a vision that was a physical manifestation of the American dream. In the 18th century, L’Enfant filled DC with plenty of public space, including parks, plazas, and wide footpaths.

Over time, DC transformed from a modest Native American settlement into the dense metropolis it is today.

Let’s take a look at this journey:

In the early 17th century, several native tribes of the Piscataway people lived on the land that is DC today.


Conflicts with European colonists forced the Piscataway to form a new home in Maryland in 1699.

In 1790, Congress established Washington, District of Columbia, a 100-square-mile district along the Potomac River.

Paul McGehee

A year later, three commissioners managing the capital’s construction named it in honour of President George Washington. The district was named Columbia, a fond name for the US at the time.

Washington enlisted Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French immigrant and engineer for the US military, to plan the city in 1791.

Library of Congress


L’Enfant had an ambitious plan: to turn a rural site into a metropolis fit for a burgeoning nation.

Don HawkinsA digital rendering of the US Capitol as it would have looked in 1814.

The National Mall’s plan was influenced by European urban design, but was also adjusted for American sensibilities. For example, pedestrians could access it from all corners, which communicated the idea that “every citizen was equally important,” L’Enfant biographer Scott Berg told Smithsonian.

The word “mall” is short for “pall-mall,” a nod to a tree-bordered walk in London’s St. James’s Park.

L’Enfant filled the District with wide avenues, public squares, and parks.

NYPLWashington, DC, circa early 1900s.

However, city commissioners worried about rising construction costs and appeasing DC’s rich landowners, since L’Enfant wanted expansive public areas. L’Enfant resigned in 1792. When he died in 1825, he had still never been paid for his work.

During the War of 1812, British troops burned down parts of modern-day Baltimore as well as DC, including the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, buildings in Capitol Heights, and the White House.

Public Domain

The White House was rebuilt from 1815 to 1817, and reopened in time for President James Monroe’s inauguration. Other damaged buildings were re-constructed as well.

Library of CongressThe White House, circa 1846.

Throughout the 19th century, the city invested in transit and waterways. Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as well as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began in 1828.

Public DomanEckington Yards, B&O Railroad, 1923.

The federal government grew in size with the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Wikipedia CommonsConstruction of Treasury, February 3, 1858.

From 1850 to 1900, DC’s population increased five-fold and surpassed 278,000 people.

Wikipedia CommonsConstruction of the US Capitol continue during the Civil War, 1860.

Source:US Census

A section of the Washington Aqueduct was completed in 1859, giving drinking water to residents and reducing their dependence on well water.

Library of Congress

Source:The US National Park Service

Slavery was abolished in DC on April 16, 1862 — eight months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Library of CongressMen loading snow onto wagon after a snow storm, Washington, DC, 1910s.

Days after the end of the Civil War in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. Below is his funeral procession.

Library of Congress

The Washington Monument opened in 1885. Here it is half-finished in 1860.


In 1901, a team of architects and planners called the McMillan Commission started expanding DC’s park system.

Wikipedia CommonsThe McMillan Plan for Washington, DC.

The updated plan made way for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

NYPLFrom Washington Monument East to Capitol over Agricultural Department, Washington, DC, 1910

The Commission demolished a number of slums in the early 1900s.

Library of CongressA view of Washington, DC, early 1900s.

Many residents lived in substandard housing dubbed “alley dwellings.”

Library of CongressA family in an alley dwelling in Washington, DC, July 1941.

This lack of suitable housing led to the creation of theAlley Dwelling Authorityin 1934, a federal housing agency that built affordable and sanitary housing units.

In 1907, Union Station opened as the city’s main train terminal.

Library of CongressA Washington, DC street car, 1890.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, livestock grazed the Mall. President William Howard Taft had a pet cow named Pauline, seen below on the Navy Building lawn circa 1910.

Library of Congress

President Woodrow Wilson kept dozens of sheep on the White House South lawn during World War I. The flock cut the grass and garnered $US52,000 for the Red Cross through a wool auction.

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Source:The White House Historical Association

Wilson also instituted segregation in several federal departments for the first time since 1863. The policy held for decades.

Library of CongressAfrican American men pave a road in Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930.

Source:The National Postal Museum

In 1919, a group of white residents attacked black residents in four days of mob violence, which resulted in 15 deaths and 150 injuries in DC. The second Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s.

Library of CongressJ.M. Fraser from Houston, Texas leads a KKK parade in Washington, DC, 1926.

Source:The New York Times

During the Great Depression, the District’s population grew quickly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, which created more federal agencies and jobs.

Library of CongressFranklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC, 1913.

One of the largest office buildings in the world, the Pentagon opened in 1943.

Library of CongressA crowd boards a bus going to the Pentagon building, Washington, DC, April 1943.

Over the next three decades, Washington,DC served as the center stage for the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of CongressCivil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.

In the ’60s and early ’70s, the city’s population declined by the tens of thousands as many white residents — drawn to new residential development and suburban malls — migrated to outer suburbs.

Library of CongressA delicatessen at 73 112th Street, Washington, DC, circa 1910 to 1930.

Source:The Atlantic

In the past four centuries, DC has gone from a giant plot of rural land to a diverse, modern city.

Library of CongressAerial view of Washington, DC, 1980.

Today, more than 690,000 people call it home.

Wikipedia Commons

Source:The US Census

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