A Sycamore Neighbor:
The Washington Aqueduct

-- by Norman Metzger

Sycamore Islander, March 2004


Great Falls Tavern, formerly the Crommelin Hotel. Here on
November 8, 1853, the President (Pierce), and other officials
celebrated the start of work. As Meigs noted in his diary,
“The Mayor and the Council of Washington provided a cold
collation of champagne, greatly enjoyed by the company. I was
compelled to make the introductory address...”
A fire on Christmas 1851 destroyed the Library of Congress, then in a single room at the West front of the Capitol. Washington's water supply at the time was a mélange of springs, cisterns, and wells feeding water into wooden or cast iron pipes to government buildings as well as to frequent "diversions" for private uses. That was fine in 1800 when Washington's population was about 3,000 but not by 1851 when some 58,000 lived there. The low water pressure that doomed the Library of Congress punctuated the problem: Washington needed a reliable water supply. Within a year, Congress voted funds for a study and then actual construction of a new source for its water. Study and construction were both put in the hands of Lt. Montgomery C. Meigs, an engineering graduate of West Point, where he had been fifth in his class of 49 (and also above two-thirds of the class in conduct demerits).

Meigs picked a site at Great Falls for his source of water. Water could flow from there by gravity into the city and, with a little assistance, to upper Georgetown. A dam originally reaching about halfway across the Potomac pooled water that flowed through a gate house at lock 20 hard by the Crommelin Hotel (now the Great Falls Tavern). The gate house, which contained 20 iron gates to filter debris, is still there. The water then flowed into a 10-mile brick-lined, and often leaky, conduit that traversed 11 tunnels, 26 culverts, and four stone bridges, moved part way along Conduit Road (now MacArthur Boulevard), and spilled serially into two reservoirs: A receiving reservoir at the District Line formed by damming Little Falls Branch and a distributing reservoir two miles downstream on the Potomac Palisades above Georgetown. The total length from Great Falls to the Navy Yard was 18.6 miles. Records were set along the way, famously the construction of the Union Arch Bridge (now the Cabin John Bridge) linking Cabin John and Glen Echo. Constructed with Quincy Granite, it was when built the longest single-span stone arch in the world, with a 220-foot clear span and a key height of over 57 feet.

It wasn't easy. Some of the obstacles are familiar, such as stop-go Congressional funding. Others were singular: Not only the Civil War but also the lack of a sheriff. Much of the land along the conduit had to be condemned, and in Montgomery County condemnations had to be approved by a jury of at least 12 locals summoned by the sheriff. But Meigs found that "considerable delay was caused by there being no legally qualified sheriff in the county of Montgomery."

Meigs was very much a hands-on manager, regularly visiting the aqueduct sites from his office at the U.S. Capitol. "He frequently made the two-hour trip to Great Falls, either on his horse Corbo on the towpath or in the Washington Aqueduct carriage, that was, in the hard winter of 1856, equipped with runners." He did that while also managing the extensions to the US Capitol that became the Senate and House chambers as well as building the Capitol's cast iron dome. The aqueduct and the Capitol projects together accounted for about ten percent of the federal budget.

The Lock 20 Gatehouse.
Work on the aqueduct started in 1853; Great Falls water entered the Washington mains early in 1859, spurting out through a fountain below Capitol Hill to the height promised by Meigs in his proposal for the system. Water went to Washington homes about five years later, albeit for limited use – it was turbid and not drinkable until about 1905. Meigs retired after his tour as Quartermaster General for the Union, but returned to design and build the Pension Building at Judiciary Square, now the home of the National Building Museum.

To all his works Meigs brought a forceful temperament and enormous capacity for getting things done, best set out by two comments about him. His mother described her six-year old son as "high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical toward his brothers, and very persevering in the pursuit of anything he wishes." And Abraham Lincoln, two months after the firing on Fort Sumter and given a military supply system that was chaotic, hugely inefficient, and riddled by corruption, was determined to put Meigs in charge. He wrote to his military chief that "I very much wish to appoint Colonel Meigs Quarter-master General….I have come to know Colonel Meigs quite well for a short acquaintance, and so far as I am capable of judging, I do not know one who combines the qualities of masculine [sic, I’m afraid] intellect, learning and experience of the right sort, and physical power of labor and endurance, as well as he." Modesty was not Meig’s strong suit: He put his name on every riser of the Georgetown gate house steps and on the plates on the buried pipes. The barge to ferry workers and supplies was, of course, the Montgomery C. Meigs.

For much more on this work, there is now The Washington Aqueduct: 1852-1992 by Harry C. Ways, Chief of the Aqueduct from 1972 to 1991. It is a thorough history, deeply researched and well written. Ways masterfully sets out the difficulties faced in building the aqueduct, the technical (and, at times, daring) ingenuity demanded, and, not least, the strong hand of Montgomery Meigs in getting it well started before he was "diverted" by the Civil War. The book is excellent but its availability is not. It was published sometime in the 1990s by the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but I'm told supplies are very limited. However, the Islander Editor, generous soul that he is, will be happy to loan his copy out to those interested. Let him know. Other sources for this very cursory story of the early history of the Aqueduct included: “Montgomery C. Meigs and the Washington Aqueduct" by Harry C. Ways, in Montgomery C. Meigs and the Building of the Nation's Capital, Washington: Ohio University Press, 2001, pp. 21-48. The quotes in this article come from the Ways chapter. Also C&O Canal National Historical Park: The Washington Aqueduct (http://www.nps.gov/choh/co_aqua.htm) and A Tour of Dalecarlia Reservoir from the Palisades Newsletter (http://www.palisadesdc.org/2000-NL/0600-NL/New0600-2.html).