Where and What is Buzzard Point

The site of the proposed soccer stadium is little known to DC residents

First of all the odd name: “Turkey Buzzard Point” is found on a map published in 1673 and all later maps until about 1800 when it became simply Buzzard Point.  It is probably the oldest neighborhood name still used in the District.  Clearly it refers to the birds that were reportedly still common there in the 19th century.  There have been regular attempts to find some more mellifluous title for the area, but none of them have stuck.  In the earliest references Buzzard Point took in all the land between the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers up to about M Street, but now it has shrunk to the area south of Q Street and east of Ft. McNair.

The area was originally part of a large estate, Duddington, but had been broken up by the time of the District’s establishment, when merchant James Greenleaf purchased almost all of the southern tip and tried his hand (unsuccessfully) at house-building.  A winding, murky creek (St. James Creek later shortened to simply James Creek) originated in the north, about where Randall School is now, and emptied into the rivers exactly at the Point.  The land to the west was soon taken by the Government to become the U.S. Arsenal (now Ft. McNair – the tip of land there is Greenleaf Point) and Greenleaf’s “Twenty Houses” – of which far fewer than twenty were actually built – stood empty and falling down by the 1810s.  (George Washington had also bought four of these lots for speculation, by the way – perhaps he later sold them to Greenleaf’s syndicate.)

L’Enfant’s Waterfront Vision

L’Enfant envisioned wharves and river commerce along Buzzard Point tied into the new city by the Washington City Canal, which his map shows using the straightened bed of James Creek.  None of this happened.  It was before the Civil War “a wild stretch of land with here and there a hovel or a house,” inhabited by “negroes and low whites.”  James Creek was rebuilt as the James Creek Canal in 1866, five years before the rest of the city canal system was filled in; the only real benefit of the work was draining of the surrounding marshes.  A count of buildings below Q Street in 1853 found exactly eight frame houses and one shop there.

Yet over time the area developed a rather unlooked-for personality – as a neighborhood of small, tidy if lower-class garden farms.  Here is a description by a visitor of 1886:

It [1st Street] is bordered on either side by true market gardens in the highest state of cultivation.  One no longer wonders where the celery comes from: here are whole squares given up to its culture.  The fields are interspaced with orchards of small fruit trees and occasionally these miniature farms have buildings set back from the road and profusely surrounded with chickens, stables and farm implements.  Some of the architecture about Buzzard Point is peculiar. One of its marked features is lattice work.  The more lattice work and picket fence the more the owner is looked up to in the community.

A Lively Community

The occasional newspaper notices of Buzzard Point from the late 19th-early 20th centuries mostly pertain to: stray farm animals; crime; drowning and boating accidents; boats stolen, lost or sunk; illegal fishing and swimming; hunting (duck, pigeon, rabbit) and concomitant shooting accidents.  The riverbank was a popular spot for mass baptisms (“by colored people”), for baseball and bowling games, and for illegal prize fights.  The only (legal) businesses mentioned were “a drinking house” and a single brick yard.  The 1900 census counted 231 persons living south of Q Street, almost exactly divided between black and white and generally on the same blocks.

A Downturn

Over time the neighborhood deteriorated.  Population, still almost perfectly mixed racially, fell to 87 in 1930.  A visitor in 1912 reported “acres and acres of land overgrown with weeds – weeds as tall as a man – dense, tangled masses of them.”  Like Blue Plains today, Buzzard Point became the area for activities that nobody wanted anywhere else – particularly a series of trash disposal plants and the dock where dead animals picked up from city streets where taken before shipment to downriver plants.  One cannot be surprised to see regular advertisements from this period: “FOR SALE – Is Your Business Objectionable to Your Neighbors?  Then buy on Buzzards Point, 1st St, SW; 10,000 feet for sale cheap.”

Railroad, industrial and river dock schemes came and went but none transformed Buzzard Point.  In 1929 the National Capitol Park and Planning Commission released a plan to take railroad lines to the Point, build wharves and zone the area industrial.  What little still existed of the old farm community disappeared but no industrial development took its place beyond an oil storage facility and the still-standing PEPCO power plant, both from 1933.  The desolate tip of land, with occasional intruders such as Hall’s Restaurant and a few boat yards, became as it still is today.

Vignettes of life in the old Buzzard Point

“It was hog-killing time on Buzzards Point last week,” remarked a member of Police Capt. George H. Williams’ command, speaking of a leave-of-absence granted George N. Fitton.  “George killed a number of hogs, and some of them weighed as much as 200 pounds,” he added.  (1916)

Another old-time character was Susan Diggs.  This aged woman went from door to door begging for food, and finally, in the fifties she was taken sick in her shanty near Buzzard’s Point and died.  When found on a pile of dried marsh grass in her dilapidated abode she had been dead several days.  (1903)

Yesterday’s warm wave caused hundreds of boys to seek relief in the water, and two of the number who went in near Buzzard’s Point were drowned.  Buzzard’s Point has been a favorite swimming place for the boys who live in South Washington and in hot weather it is not an unusual thing to see fifty or more of them in the water at a time.  (1904)

“In dear remembrance of my dead child, Fannie.  She leaves to mourn her mother, her father, a host of good friends and Cousin Lon.”  Finding this note on a freshly packed grave on Buzzards Point yesterday Policeman Davis settled down to unravel what appeared to be an unauthorized burial of a baby or young child.  Policeman Davis ordered the body exhumed.  It was found to be a dog.  (1926)

Hayden Wetzel is a local historian who studied Buzzard Point to write a landmark nomination for the Buzzard Point Power Station.  He will give an illustrated talk on the subject at an upcoming SWNA meeting.