Notes on Mark Twain’s (Sam Clemens) experience with a Washington omnibus in 1854

When 18-year old Samuel Clemens first experienced Washington, D.C. in February of 1854 he wasn’t all too impressed.

"References" _ Map of the City Washington in the District of Columbia (1854) Published by Casimir Bohn

“References” _ Map of the City Washington in the District of Columbia (1854) Published by Casimir Bohn [Collection of Washingtoniana Division, G3850 1854 B6]

There are scarcely any pavements, and I might almost say no gas, off the thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue. Then, if you should be seized with a desire to go to the Capitol, or [somewhere]else, you may stand in a puddle of water, with the snow driving in your face for fifteen minutes or more, before an omnibus rolls lazily by; and when one does come, ten to one there are [nineteen ]passengers inside and fourteen outside, and while the driver casts on you a look of commiseration, you have the inexpressible satisfaction of knowing that you closely resemble a very moist[dish-rag], (and feel so, too,) at the same time that you are unable to discover what benefit you have derived from your fifteen minutes’ soaking; and so, driving your fists into the inmost recesses of your breeches pockets, you stride away in despair, with a step and a grimace that would make the fortune of a tragedy actor, while your “onery” appearance is greeted with “screems of laftur” from a pack of vagabond boys over the way. Such is life, and such is Washington!

The omnibus Clemens mentions would begat the streetcar, which first began running in Washington, D.C. in 1862, which would begat the Metro, which first began running in 1976.

During Clemens visit three omnibus lines ran throughout Washington. In January the Daily Evening Star reported that “running in New York, 33 lines of omnibuses, with 521 stages, and five railroads, with 164 cars – of which the New Haven and Harlem road has 13; Sixth Avenue road, 43; Eighth Avenue road, 50; Second Avenue road, 50; Second Avenue road, 18; and Third Avenue road, 40 cars.”

In Washington today, and the surrounding suburbs, proximity to the Metro or “transit-oriented development” is vital to real estate development. In reviewing newspaper classifieds from the months before and after Clemens’ 1854 visit it appears owners of boarding houses attempted to appeal to antebellum urbanists.

HOUSES FOR RENT. – I have for rent several new convenient houses, with lots of two acres of ground attached to each, situated on a new street parallel with Boundary street, running along the top of the ridge west of the railroad where it leaves the city, a little more than a mile north-easterly from the Capitol.

These houses have from seven to ten rooms each, including a kitchen, with several closets and cellar, woodsheds and a stable, and pumps of excellent water near at hand. The situation is beautiful, overlooking the railroad and a large portion of the city, and having the Capitol in full view. The approach to them is by H street, Delaware Avenue, and M street, graded and graveled. The soil of the lots is generally good, and capable of being made very productive.

An omnibus now runs twice a day between these houses and the President’s square, by way of M street, Delaware avenue, H street, 7th street and Pennsylvania avenue; leaving the houses at about half-past eight o’clock, a.m., and half-past two p.m.; returning, after brief stands at the War, Navy and Treasury Departments, the Centre Market, General Post Office and Patent Office.

Special thanks to “Professor” Thomas Neville for his help tracking down an elusive source.


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