In 1632, English fur trader Henry Fleet first documented a Native American (Nacotchtank) village called Tohoga on the site of present-day Georgetown and established trade there. Georgetown was incorporated as a town and first regularly settled in 1751, when the area was part of the British colony of the Province of Maryland. Georgetown was located on land that was owned by George Gordon and George Beall.
Situated on the fall line, Georgetown was the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection house along the Potomac in approximately 1745. Tobacco was already being transferred from land to waterways at this location, when the inspection house was built. Warehouses, wharves, and other buildings were then constructed around the inspection house, and it quickly became a small community. It did not take long before Georgetown grew into a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of tobacco and other goods from colonial Maryland. One of the most prominent tobacco export businesses was Forrest, Stoddert and Murdock, which was formed in 1783 in Georgetown, by Uriah Forrest, Benjamin Stoddert, and John Murdock.
Georgetown was established in 1751 when the Maryland Legislature purchased 60 acres (240,000 m2) of land for the town from Gordon and Beall at the price of £280. Since Georgetown was founded during the reign of George II of Great Britain, some speculate that the town was named after him. Another theory is that the town was named after its founders, George Gordon and George Beall.
The Maryland Legislature formally issued the town charter and incorporated the town in 1789. Robert Peter, who was among the first to establish a business (tobacco export) in the town, became Georgetown's first mayor in 1790.
Benjamin Stoddert was a major figure in early Georgetown history. Arriving there in 1783, having previously served as Secretary to the Board of War under the Articles of Confederation, he partnered with General Uriah Forrest to become an original proprietor of the Potomac Company. Stoddert purchased stock in the federal government under Hamilton's assumption-of-debt plan. He ultimately owned Halcyon House at the corner of 34th and Prospect Streets.
The terms of the land transfer to the federal government to create the national capital were worked out by Stoddert and other Potomac landowners at a dinner at Forrest's home in Georgetown on March 28, 1791. Stoddert bought land within the boundaries of the federal district, some of it at the request of Washington for the government and some on speculation. The speculative purchases were not, however, profitable and caused Stoddert much difficulty before his appointment as Secretary of the Navy to John Adams. Stoddert was rescued from his debts with the help of William Marbury, later of Marbury v. Madison fame, and also a Georgetown resident. The Forrest-Marbury House on M Street is currently the embassy of Ukraine.
Col. John Beatty established the first church in Georgetown, a Lutheran church on High Street. Stephen Bloomer Balch established a Presbyterian Church in 1784. In 1795, the Trinity Catholic Church was built, along with a parish school-house. St. John's Episcopal Church was built in 1803. Banks in Georgetown included the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, which was established in 1814. Other banks included the Bank of Washington, Patriotic Bank, Bank of the Metropolis, and the Union and Central Banks of Georgetown. Newspapers in Georgetown included the Republican Weekly Ledger, which was the first paper, started in 1790. The Sentinel was first published in 1796 by Green, English & Co. Charles C. Fulton began publishing the Potomac Advocate, which was started by Thomas Turner. Other newspapers in Georgetown included the Georgetown Courier and the Federal Republican. William B. Magruder, the first postmaster, was appointed on February 16, 1790, and in 1795, a custom house was established on Water Street. General James M. Lingan served as the first collector of the port.
Georgetown around 1862. Overview of the C&O Canal, Aqueduct Bridge at right, and unfinished Capitol dome in the distant background.
George Washington frequented Georgetown, including Suter's Tavern where he worked out many land deals from there to acquire land for the Federal City. In the 1790s, City Tavern, the Union Tavern, and the Columbian Inn opened and were popular throughout the 19th century. Of these taverns, only the City Tavern remains today, as a private social club (the City Tavern Club) located near the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street.
Thomas Jefferson lived for some time in Georgetown while he served as United States Secretary of State under President George Washington. Georgetown was home to Francis Scott Key who arrived as a young lawyer in 1808 and resided on M Street. Dr. William Beanes, a relative of Key, captured the rear guard of the British Army while it was burning Washington during the War of 1812. When the mass of the army retreated, they retrieved their imprisoned guard and took Dr. Beanes as a captive to their fleet near Baltimore. Key went to the fleet to request the release of Beanes, was held until the bombardment of Fort McHenry was completed, and gained the inspiration for "The Star-Spangled Banner".
By the 1820s, the Potomac River had become silted up and was not navigable up to Georgetown. Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal began in July 1828, to link Georgetown to Harper's Ferry in West Virginia. The canal was completed on October 10, 1850, at a cost $77,041,586. The canal turned out not to be profitable, never living up to expectations with construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The Canal nonetheless provided an economic boost for Georgetown. In the 1820s and 1830s, Georgetown was an important shipping center. Tobacco and other goods were transferred between the canal and shipping on the Potomac River. As well, salt was imported from Europe, and sugar and molasses were imported from the West Indies. These shipping industries were later superseded by coal and flour industries, which flourished with the C & O Canal providing cheap power for mills and other industry.
Early twentieth century
In 1915, the Buffalo Bridge (on Q Street) opened and connected this part of Georgetown with the rest of the city east of Rock Creek Park. Soon thereafter, new construction of large apartment buildings began on the edge of Georgetown. In the early 1920s, John Ihlder led efforts to take advantage of new zoning laws to get restrictions enacted on construction in Georgetown. A 1933 study by Horace Peaslee and Allied Architects laid out ideas for how Georgetown could be preserved.
The C & O Canal, then owned by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, formally ceased operations in March 1924. After severe flooding in 1936, B & O Railroad sold the canal to the National Park Service in October 1938. The waterfront area retained its industrial character in the first half of the 20th century. Georgetown was home to a lumber yard, a cement works, the Washington Flour mill, and a meat rendering plant, and its skyline was dominated by the smokestacks of a garbage incinerator and the twin stacks of the power generating plant for the old Capital Traction streetcar system, located at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, which closed in 1935 and which was not razed until October 1968. In 1949, the city constructed the Whitehurst Freeway, an elevated highway above K Street, to allow motorists entering the District over the Key Bridge to bypass Georgetown entirely on their way downtown.
Legislators largely ignored concerns about historic preservation of Georgetown until 1950, when Public Law 808 was passed, establishing the historic district of "Old Georgetown." The law required that the United States Commission of Fine Arts be consulted on any alteration, demolition, or building construction within the historic district.
As the only existing town at the time, Georgetown was the fashion and cultural center of the newly-formed District of Columbia. As Washington grew, however, the center of social Washington moved east across Rock Creek to the new Victorian homes that sprang up around the city's traffic circles, and to the Gilded Age mansions along Massachusetts Avenue. While many "old families" stayed on in Georgetown, the neighborhood's population became poorer and more racially diverse by the early 20th century. Its demographics started to shift again when gentrification began during the 1930s, as a number of members of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved into the area. By the 1950s, a wave of new post-war residents arrived. Many of these new residents were well-educated, from elite backgrounds and they took a keen interest in the neighborhood's historic nature. At about the same time, the Citizens Association of Georgetown was formed.
The area reached the height of fashionability when Georgetown resident John F. Kennedy was elected president. Kennedy lived in Georgetown in the 1950s as both a Congressman and a Senator. Parties hosted by his wife, Jackie, and many other Georgetown hostesses drew political elites away from downtown clubs and hotels or the upper 16th Street corridor. Kennedy went to his presidential inauguration from his townhouse at 3307 N Street in January 1961. Today Georgetown is one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Washington DC and home to many of the city's politicians and lobbyists. Current inhabitants include Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, past Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, Washington Post Watergate reporter and current assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, and Montana Senator Max Baucus, among others. High-end developments and gentrification have revitalized Georgetown's formerly blighted industrial waterfront. The District's old refuse incinerator and smokestack, preserved for years as an abandoned but historic landmark, was redeveloped in 2003 to become the most pronounced feature of a new Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Georgetown is bounded by the Potomac River on the south, Rock Creek to the east, Burleith and Glover Park to the north, with Georgetown University on the west end of the neighborhood. Much of Georgetown is surrounded by parkland and green space that serve as buffers from development in adjacent neighborhoods, and provide recreation. Rock Creek Park, the Oak Hill Cemetery, Montrose Park and Dumbarton Oaks are located along the north and east edge of Georgetown, east of Wisconsin Avenue. The neighborhood is situated on bluffs overlooking the Potomac River. As a result, there are some rather steep grades on streets running north-south. The famous "Exorcist steps" connecting M Street to Prospect Street were necessitated by the hilly terrain of the neighborhood.
The primary commercial corridors of Georgetown are M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, whose high fashion stores draw large numbers of tourists as well as local shoppers year-round. There is also the Washington Harbour complex on K Street, on the waterfront, featuring outdoor bars and restaurants popular for viewing boat races. Between M and K Streets runs the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, today plied only by tour boats; adjacent trails are popular with joggers or strollers.
Georgetown is home to many historic landmarks including:
* Canal Square Building, 1054 31st Street, NW, former home of the Tabulating Machine Company, a direct precursor of IBM
* The City Tavern Club, built in 1796, is the oldest commercial structure in Washington, D.C.
* The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, begun in 1829.
* Dumbarton Oaks, 3101 R Street, NW, former home of John C. Calhoun, U.S. vice president, where the United Nations charter was outlined in 1944.
* Evermay, built in 1801 and restored by F. Lammot Belin
* The Forrest-Marbury House, 3350 M Street, NW, where George Washington met with local landowners to acquire the District of Columbia. Currently the Embassy of the Ukraine.
* Georgetown Lutheran Church was the first church in Georgetown, dates back to 1769. The current church structure, the fourth on the site, was built in 1914.
* Georgetown Presbyterian Church was established in 1780 by Reverend Stephen Bloomer Balch. Formerly located on Bridge Street (M Street), the current church building was constructed in 1881 on P Street.
* Healy Hall on Georgetown's campus, built in Flemish Romanesque style from 1877 to 1879 was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
* Mount Zion United Methodist Church and Mount Zion Cemetery
* The Oak Hill Cemetery, a gift of William Wilson Corcoran whose Gothic chapel and gates were designed by James Renwick, is the resting place of Abraham Lincoln's son Willie and other figures.
* The Old Stone House, built in 1765, located on M Street is the oldest original structure in Washington, D.C.
* Tudor Place and Dumbarton Court