View along Georgetown’s M Street
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
Georgetown’s commercial history began on the waterfront as a shipping center. Sprawled along the waterfront were warehouses and wharves, sailor’s taverns, flour mills and a fleet of ships. Tobacco was the lifeblood of the new community, and in 1745, a “Rolling House” for the inspection and trade of the crop was called for by the Maryland legislature. Completed in 1747, the Rolling House stimulated the growth of the settlement. Licenses for taverns were issued and soon commerce and industry developed on the waterfront. The 1763 Treaty of Paris, ending the French and Indian War, opened up trade along the Ohio River Valley area on which Georgetown placed high hopes. Georgetown’s taverns and the hotels provided fashionable lodging for the merchants who visited the thriving port.
During the American Revolution, Georgetown served as a depot for the collection and shipment of military supplies. When the town was incorporated in 1789, it continued to thrive as a textile mill, a paper factory and flour mills flourished on the waterfront. By an act of Congress, Georgetown was made the port of entry for imported goods for all the waters and shores from the Pomonky Creek north of the Potomac River, to the head of the navigable waters of the Potomac. Further stimulating the economy, the opening of the canal system of the Potomac Canal Company from 1785 to 1802 made Georgetown a terminal port at tidewater for much of the western trade.
Georgetown was profoundly affected by the establishment of the District of Columbia as the nation’s capital. Although Georgetown was included in the new District, it retained its distinct character and became the center of Washington’s social and diplomatic life in the early part of the 19th century. As the federal city developed, Georgetown’s business and social affairs shifted from the waterfront to Bridge Street (now M Street), which became the principal avenue of approach to the new capital from the west. Many legislators and their families stayed in the Georgetown hotels and taverns, and did their shopping there as well.
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
The future seemed bright at the turn of the century, but Georgetown’s financial growth proved to be temporary as its commercial importance declined with the advance of Alexandria, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The western and Potomac valley trade did not develop as expected because of the failure of the canal-and-lock system to function except during high water stages of the river. By 1819, the Potomac Canal Company was almost bankrupt. Although Congress, in 1825, granted a charter to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company to build a canal from the tidewater to the Cumberland, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad reached it first, and the western trade never materialized. When the poor prospects for commerce were realized, Georgetown encouraged industrial development to revitalize its economy. With the onslaught of immigration and industrialization, Georgetown had become urbanized. It was incorporated into Washington, DC, in 1871 in recognition of its development.
By the time World War I was over, Georgetown had gained a reputation as one of Washington’s worst slums. This trend began to reverse itself in the 1930s, when New Deal politicians and government officials rediscovered its charm and convenience to Washington. Georgetown became once again the chic enclave for the affluent and political. Nowhere is the revitalization effort more evident than the lively commercial district on M Street and Wisconsin. Filled with shops, restaurants and other businesses, this area is the one of the major centers of activity in Washington, DC.
Georgetown’s Commercial Buildings are located in the heart of the Georgetown Historic District between M St. and the waterfront. The Farmers and Mechanics Branch Riggs Bank is open during banking hours. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is open to the public during daylight hours. For more information, please call 301/739-4200. The Old Stone House is located at 3051 M St., NW and is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. For more information, please call 202/426-6851. Metro stop: Foggy Bottom