The Monroe Street bridge is about to undergo a complete and long-needed rehabilitation. The original bridge was not particularly exciting on a design level (neither is the planned replacement), nor was it supposed to be. It was a utilitarian bridge with a simple purpose - to get across the railroad tracks. It quietly opened in 1908, without the fanfare that accompanied the opening of the Michigan Avenue bridge 30 years later, but its effect on Brookland was enormous.
Before the Monroe Street bridge, Brookland’s commerical area was clustered around the intersection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks and Bunker Hill Road (soon to be renamed Michigan Avenue). In addition to the train station, there were coal and freight yards and numerous small shops, including a bakery, restaurant, grocery store, post office, and even a Town Hall building. But there was a hazard: that intersection was a grade crossing, with the railroad tracks level with Bunker Hill Road.
Grade crossings were dangerous, and as traffic increased in our region, so did accidents, close calls, and even some deaths. Beginning in 1904, the Brookland Citizens Association began calling for a solution, namely a bridge. There were a number of issues involved. Safety was certainly one, but improving transit options was a close second.
1887: Col. Jehiel Brooks had died the previous year and his 200+ acres of land had been sold. The first subdivision, named simply “Brookland,” was in the process of being platted. As the surveyors were laying out the roads, they stumbled upon something surprising. Near the intersection of what would be Monroe and 12th Streets, some graves were discovered beneath the pine and cedar trees.
They had not been well-tended. There were three large stone slabs overgrown with weeds, the corners broken on one of them. It looked like they once had rested on short sandstone and brick pillars, but those had long since disappeared. The inscriptions on the slabs were still legible. One of them read:
David Burnes, Esq
City of Washington
The 8th of May, 1800,
Aged 60 years, 2 months and 24 days.
The other two were Burnes’s wife, Anne, who died in 1807, and his son John, who died at the age of 20 in 1792.
If any of those surveyors recognized the name of David Burnes they would have been even more surprised. Burnes was one of the original landholders of what would become Washington, D.C. His home was right where Tiber Creek met the Potomac, very near today’s 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. When George Washington began discussions with the landowners to create the capital city, he got to know David Burnes well, referring to him as “obstinate.” That wasn’t a surprise, Burnes was in a strong negotiating position. His 700 acre farm was centrally located and essential to the new city.
When I first moved to Brookland I quickly noticed how many cemeteries there seemed to be in our vicinity. As it turns out, of the 22 existing cemeteries within the District of Columbia borders, twelve are still active, and seven of those are located within two miles of us.
Of course there were once many more burial grounds in the city, in churchyards, family plots, community cemeteries, and municipal grounds. They were usually crowded and not well-tended, and many conducted their burials chronologically, separating family members from each other. Those criticisms, along with growing fears of disease due to unhealthy conditions, caused legislation to be introduced in 1852 that forbade new cemeteries within the Federal City -- the highly-populated area south of Florida Avenue, between the two rivers and east of Rock Creek. All new cemeteries in the District were consigned to Washington County, which included the area that would become Brookland.
That change coincided with the rise of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which promoted cemeteries as places of well-landscaped beauty and tranquility, with appealing views and walking paths for contemplation. The first rural cemetery in Washington was Oak Hill in Georgetown, which opened in 1849. Soon after came Glenwood on Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) in 1853. Others began to sprout up, Prospect Hill and Mount Olivet in 1858, and St. Mary’s in 1875. As downtown development increased, so did pressure on the old cemeteries to sell their valuable land. To do so, many began to reinter their graves in the new cemeteries in Washington County.
Brookland had a number of different development partners in its formative years: Benjamin Leighton and Richard Pairo, William Barnes and John Weaver, Joseph Batchelder and Archibald McLachlen among others, but perhaps the most interesting are James Lewis Sherwood (below left) and his younger brother Jesse Randolph Sherwood, Jr. (below right), who together had an enormous impact on Brookland’s development.
The story of the Sherwoods and Brookland actually begins with James and Jesse’s father, Jesse Randolph Sherwood, Sr. (below, courtesy Washington Historical Society)
He was a market gardener in Alexandria, Virginia, looking to expand and chose the area that would soon become Brookland. “My father bought 25 acres out here in the '80s,” said James Sherwood in a 1950 interview with the Washington Post. “He paid $125 an acre and rented 25 more for truck gardening. He had an option to buy the second tract at the same price. But he did not take up his option because the earth was a heavy clay and it was too difficult to grow vegetables on it.”
Jesse Sherwood had purchased those 25 acres from the McCeney family, who owned a good bit of land in the area. The main McCeney farm, just north of the Sherwood tract, would later be sold to the Franciscans, who built their monastery there.
While doing some online research a few years ago, I came across this painting. It was titled “Brookland, DC,” but had no artist’s name, no dates, no useful information of any sort. After trying many different searches over the years, I finally traced it. The artist is Edgar Hewitt Nye (1879 - 1943). Nye lived, worked and taught in Washington for 58 years.
Nye studied at the Corcoran school here, then studied overseas for 13 years. Returning to DC, he lived first on Bryant Street NW off North Capitol, then at 1008 Taylor Street NE in Brookland.
Primarily a landscape artist, Nye’s works hang in the National Museum of American Art, the Philips Collection, Georgetown University and the Corcoran Gallery. He painted many scenes of Washington.
From an auction website I found these details of this particular work: “ Oil on artist board, signed lower left and located on paper label on reverse: 'Brookland, D.C. (off Bunker Hill Road). Vicinity now a well built up residential section.'” It’s hard to tell the exact location, but there was a creek that ran on the north side of Bunker Hill Road from today’s Perry Street to 18th Street. My guess would be it’s a view from near today’s Michigan Avenue and 14th Street looking south toward Bunker Hill.