DC

D.C.'s Half-Accidental National Mardi Gras

Crowds pack the top floor of the Treasury Building as the Carnival is in full swing on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The modern-day DC Caribbean Carnival is a small affair, at least compared to the world-famous parades in carnival cities. There are plenty of revelers - and people celebrating Caribbean culture - but the capital certainly doesn’t come to a halt the way cities like New Orleans do on Mardi Gras. This hasn’t always been the case, however. For one year, in 1871, Washington, D.C. stumbled into hosting a Carnival parade that rivaled those in New Orleans itself. The National Fete, as it also became known, was an extremely patriotic version of the Carnival festivities, with national flags, “Yankee Doodle,” and rockets’ red glare mingling with the Lord of Misrule and the masquerade.

Benjamin Banneker’s Capital Contributions

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was already a practiced mathematician and astronomer when he was approached in February 1791 by his friend Andrew Ellicott to survey the land staked out for the new United States capital. A free black who grew up in Maryland as a farmer, Banneker was more than a laborer. Though his formal education ended at an early age, he continued to study science and physics and would later write a series of best-selling almanacs. He designed and built a striking clock at age 22 that kept perfect time for forty years until it was destroyed in a fire. But, perhaps him most long lasting mark was the unique role he played in the development of the nation's capital -- a job that went far beyond what Ellicott orginally had in mind.

Fortress Alexandria

Fort Ward, Virginia, photo by AjaxSmack (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After Union forces were routed in the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, they rushed back northward in a panic, realizing that Washington was vulnerable to a Confederate counterattack that — fortunately for the Union — the enemy chose not to mount.

A few days afterward, when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was appointed military governor of the capital, he made a sobering assessment of its poor defenses. As a result, the Union launched a crash campaign to protect Washington with a ring of outer defenses, which by the war's end would include 68 forts, 93 artillery batteries and 20 miles of rifle trenches, as well as picket stations, blockhouses and bridgeheads.

Tivoli Brewing Factory

Robert Portner and Alexandria's Pre-Prohibition Brewing History

The history of brewing beer in the United States is a rich and storied one. Cities like St. Louis, Missouri and Milwaukee, Wisconsin resonate with most beer drinkers across the country as centers for American brewing. For Virginia residents, you might not realize how close Alexandria, Virginia came to being one of those brewing capitals. From the closing years of the Civil War until prohibition turned Virginia into a dry state, the Robert Portner Brewing Company was the leading brewery and distributor in the southeastern United States. Led by its visionary namesake, the Portner Brewing Company became the largest business in Alexandria and remains a fascinating tale of innovation.

The Civil War Created a Refugee Crisis in Washington

Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, July-August 1862. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Civil War changed Washington, D.C. tremendously, but one of the biggest impacts came from the thousands of former slaves who fled from the South and journeyed northward to seek refuge in the nation's capital. By early 1863, an estimated 10,000 of the refugees had arrived in the city, doubling the city's African-American population. The new residents were impoverished and in desperate need of basic wants, and often had no idea how to survive in a city.

David Bowie's First Visit to America Started in D.C. Area

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 1971: A pre-glam David Bowie jams at a party thrown by publicist and future nightclub impresario and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer at lawyer Paul Figen's house in January 1971, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Rock superstar David Bowie, who died at age 69 on January 10, 2016, sold 140 million albums in a career that spanned more than four decades and earned fame as perhaps the genre's most flamboyantly inventive performer.

But back on Jan. 27, 1971, when he arrived on a flight from London at Dulles International Airport, Bowie was still a largely unknown 24-year-old singer-songwriter, hoping somehow to break through. His album The Man Who Sold the World, had been released in England three months before and sold disappointingly. But his label, Mercury Records, hoped that he would make a bigger splash if he went to the U.S. and had a chance to meet rock journalists and radio disc jockeys. So Bowie, despite his fear of flying, had gotten on the jet and endured a flight across the Atlantic for the first time.

But instead of flying to New York or Los Angeles, the twin capitals of the American music industry, Bowie's first stop on American soil was in the D.C. area. 

First Union Officer Killed in Civil War Was a Friend of Lincoln

Death of Col. Ellsworth After hauling down the rebel flag, at the taking of Alexandria, Va., May 24th 1861; Creator: Currier & Ives. (Source: Library of Congress)

Possibly the toughest part of being a President is having to send U.S. forces into combat, knowing that some of them will not return alive.  After the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had to face that terrible reality very quickly. On the morning of May 24, 1861, a personal friend of the President, Col. Elmer Ellsworth, became the first Union officer to be killed in the conflict in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.

 

Ice Carnival at the Tidal Basin

People ice skating and walking on the Tidal Basin, year unknown. [Estimated to be between 1900 and 1930] (Image source: D.C. Public Library, Special Collections.)

We’ve written earlier about how the Tidal Basin was the site of a popular public beach in the 1920s. In the decade before, however, it hosted another source of popular entertainment: ice skating. In 1912, it was the site of an elaborate “ice carnival,” with thousands of Washingtonians showing up to skate, sled, and have an evening of wintry fun.

In the 1900s, the Tidal Basin freezing was a rare treat. Unlike the Potomac River, when the enormous basin froze completely, it had a smooth surface, turning it into a gigantic potential ice rink. The absolutely frigid temperatures of the winter of 1912 gave D.C. residents ample chance to take advantage of this. For several weeks in January and February 1912, D.C. was subjected to “the coldest temperatures of the 20th century.” It was a cold spell to put the polar vortex to shame. On January 14, 1912, the low was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which has never again been reached in the District, and which is rivaled only by one freezing day in 1899. Pipes burst, gas meters iced over, and milk bottles froze, with “the cream [swelling] out into a solid cylinder two inches above the mouths of the bottles.”

Obviously, people were pretty miserable. But the upside of this was that for several weeks, the Tidal Basin was completely frozen, creating perfect skating conditions. Many people had already ventured out onto the ice on their own, but some District officials had bigger plans.

1977: A Long Time Ago, in a Theater Not Far Away ...

Uptown Theater, Washington, D.C. (Credit:  Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest installment of the long-running sci-fi movie franchise, premiered at the Uptown Theater in the District's Cleveland Park neighborhood on December 17, 2015, and it's pretty obvious from the legions of fans who showed up that it's going to be an enormous hit. That's all the more remarkable when you consider that when the first Star Wars made its debut at the same theater back on May 25, 1977, few in Hollywood expected director George Lucas' movie to do much business, let alone the pandemonium it would go on to create.

Pages