Buzzard Point’s current status as Washington’s newest hot property belies its peculiar history. For nearly two centuries its main attraction was the US Arsenal, now Fort Lesley J. McNair, which manufactured arms and was the venue for the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Next door was a factory that boiled animal carcasses for fertilizer. How Buzzard Point went from making weapons and cooking horses to kicking goals at Audi Field requires a walk along one of history’s less–traveled paths.
A Foreign Land
A newspaper story from the Washington Evening Star in 1906 offers a good starting point. “Way down at the foot of 1st Street Southwest, in that part of the city known as Buzzards Point, lies a hideous desert of ashes and tin cans—the dump.” With that vivid prose, an intrepid Star reporter began his description of one of the city’s largest and least known public facilities.
He assumed that his readers knew nothing about the Point, a large expanse bounded on the west by the broad Potomac River, on the east by the narrower Anacostia, and on the north by the area around P Street. A sluggish, marshy stream, James Creek, divided the terrain into a western side, dominated by the Arsenal, and an eastern side that was home to a scattered, racially mixed population.
Like an explorer, he detailed astonishing sights to his readers, who were perhaps a prosperous white couple perusing their Evening Star after a dinner prepared by their African American cook. “A fringe of ramshackle huts guards the northern approach,” he continues, “and at the foot of this barren, tomato-can cemetery the river ripples and smiles in the sunlight.”
The denizens of this burned over land were poor African Americans, who scratched livings from the bits of metal, leather, and fabrics they gleaned from the piles of municipal trash dumped each morning. “Hovering around each vehicle as it is unloaded — in all verity like winged scavengers for which the point is named—may be seen a score or more negroes, old and young, armed with hoes, rakes, sharp sticks, bags, boxes and push carts, ready to swoop down upon each load of debris.” Several hundred words later, the reporter closed his notebook and led his readers from this strange, outlandish place.
While readers may have found the Evening Star’s article enlightening, the city’s police knew Buzzard Point all too well as one of the most dangerous parts of town. “Bloodfield,” which stretched from Virginia Avenue to the river and Buzzard Point, was notorious during the 1870s and 80s as “the scene of the fiercest fights, the foulest murders and the darkest crimes in the city’s history,” according to a later newspaper account. By the mid-1890s it had become peaceable and law-abiding, but in the rest of Buzzard Point the officers of the Fourth Precinct who patrolled at night feared for their safety.
A Path to Nowhere
Buzzard Point offered a more promising prospect decades earlier, however, when Washington formally opened as the nation’s capital in 1800. The fertile land and extensive shorefront, with beautiful views from high bluffs, begged for development as a town and harbor. In 1770, years before the national capital opened for business, Charles Carroll Jr. sold lots for his town of Carrollsburg, on the Anacostia shore of the point.
Though the town never materialized, Washingtonians began to settle there. Ferry-boat operator Capt. Joseph Johnson bought one of the lots and ca. 1800 built a fine brick house on T Street, just to the east of Half Street, that survived until the 1940s. Not far from Johnson’s house Capt. James Barry constructed one of the city’s earliest Catholic churches, in 1806, at the northwest corner of Half and P streets.
Buzzard Point’s sure-thing future did not pan out, however. As the century unfolded, the demographics favored other areas of the city, and with the population flow went wealth and economic development. To the north, Connecticut Avenue and nearby streets began pulling residents and businesses north of the Mall. To the east of Buzzard Point, another center of wealth and population arose around the Navy Yard, soon to become the city’s largest single industrial enterprise and employer. The railroad, when it reached the lands south of the Mall in 1872, passed close to the Navy Yard but skirted north of Buzzard Point and headed up Virginia Avenue toward the Mall. It would not enter Buzzard Point until many decades later.
The unkindest cut of all came with the rise of the Southwest waterfront as the city’s main harbor. Buzzard Point’s shorefront on the Anacostia experienced constant silting-up, and the lucrative waterfront trade developed mainly on the Potomac side, today’s Southwest Waterfront, where roads like 13th Street, 12th Street, and 6th Street led to the growing, and affluent, neighborhoods south and north of the Mall.
Buzzard Point became a Nowheresville. Lacking compelling assets except the cheapness of its land, it drew low-rent enterprises like brickyards, orchards, celery farms, the animal recycling plant, and the dump.
The poster child of the point’s fate was the James Creek Canal, dug in the bed of marshy James Creek to provide better water transport for local businesses. Construction began in the 1860s and by the 1870s had created a shallow, narrow, bulkheaded channel that reached north to G Street SW. It attracted businesses dealing in lumber, sand, and fertilizer, served by small sloops and barges moved by steam tugs. Bridges carried city thoroughfares across waters fouled with sewage and dead animals. The large girders framing the bridge at M Street SW made it a favorite ambush place for muggers.
The canal soon gained fame as a danger to the unwary, who fell or stumbled into it with remarkable frequency. A newspaper story in 1902 estimated that in its brief history the canal’s waters had consumed some 300 human lives. Complaints by residents to clean up the ill-smelling canal and fence off its steep shores led to a gradual paving over, completed around 1930. Today the canal and the original creek are out of sight and mind.
Buzzard Point’s odd historical path— almost-boom and then mostly bust— came full circle during the 21st century as intense real estate development at the Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront raised land values and diminished the acreage available for more development. The Point’s underdeveloped spaces drew increasing attention, enhanced by the buzz of a baseball park and a soccer stadium. It also did not hurt that Washingtonians had rediscovered the joys of shorefront living.
Today’s Buzzard Point has it all: shorefront, views, and proximity to the corridors of power. Once properly groomed and manicured, it may even gain cachet. It’s a sure thing ‒ again.
Southwest resident William Zeisel is a partner in QED Associates LLC, a consulting firm that has conducted extensive research on the history of the DC area. He is co-author of the official history of the University of the District of Columbia.