Friend of the blog and Official Neighbor Tim Krepp has written a book about Capitol Hill and how its full of spectral, translucent beings who aren't just the geriatric congresspeople that oversee our fair city but who are actual real life ghosts! The book is called Capitol Hill Haunts and it's available on Amazon and/or in the Amazon assuming that Brazilian bookseller has received that copy I put in the mail last week. It's probably available elsewhere, like local bookstores, assuming those, like poltergeists, actually exist. Tim's been kind enough to allow me to excerpt the part of his book on the Phantom Wheelman, which might or might not have been the name of that first Star Wars prequel that everyone hated. Thanks Tim! And thank you kind readers for buying multiple copies of Capitol Hill Haunts! And for those of you who live on the Hill, beware the spooky ghostly bike commuters!
Today, visitors to the Capitol grounds are taken in by the well-maintained and charming landscaping, but that wouldn’t have been the case in 1865. It was the end of the Civil War, and although paint was barely dry on the Capitol’s magnificent new dome, the grounds were a public disgrace. Every tree had been cut for firewood, the grass lawns were a muddy mess and, much like the city around it, the grounds showed the wear and tear of having been an armed camp for four years.
After some prodding, Congress decided to spruce up the place and hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to plan and supervise improvements. Among the many challenges Olmsted faced was incorporating D.C.’s streetcar system into the new design.
Washington, D.C.’s very first streetcar line skirted the Capitol when it opened in 1862, running from Georgetown down Pennsylvania Avenue and then down 8th Street SE to the Navy Yard. It had been built quickly during the war to help accommodate the rapid growth of the city and had simply been laid in the most direct route right by the Capitol. Olmsted moved it farther out, along Independence Avenue, to allow room for his signature curved pathways.
This is where our story begins, on a cable car of the Capitol Traction Company, coming down Capitol Hill and heading toward Georgetown on a summer night in 1896.
It was late, after midnight, and the car picked up speed coming down the hill. Olmsted’s vision was coming to fruition, but in doing so, the thick shrubbery was creating blind turns for drivers. As the car whipped around the corner and turned onto First Street, roughly where Garfield Circle is today, the gripman stationed in the front of the vehicle released the traction cable that pulled the car, slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a stop in the dark, gloomy roadway—so quickly and suddenly that the conductor in the rear of the car didn’t have time to apply his rear brakes.
“Quick, John, I’ve run over a bicyclist for sure this time!” he shouted to the conductor. “Hurry up and we can get him out. He just went down under the fender!”
The two trainmen hurried over to the front of the car and searched through the tangle of ropes and cables that drew the vehicle. Even with a lamp, they were unable to find any evidence of a bicycle, and there was no more reason to hold up the car. The gripman, rather shamefacedly but yet obviously still shaken, returned to his post and grasped the grip that connected the car to the underground cable (hence his job title), and the car continued on its way.
The story would have no doubt ended there, unrecorded to history, if a Washington Post reporter hadn’t been on the car that evening. History, by the way, does not record exactly what aPost reporter was doing on a Friday night after midnight on Capitol Hill. Late-breaking story, no doubt. But whatever his state, he realized a good story when he saw one. The gripman, a grizzled veteran of the old horse-drawn (or “bob-tail”) cars, was a bit reluctant to talk at first, embarrassed at his outcry and fearful of ridicule. The reporter persisted, and the gripman grudgingly launched into it. He had started work on the same line, then part of the Washington and Georgetown Railroad, back in 1875, which put him right in the middle of the cycling craze.
Today, we often forget that there was a time when the bicycle was new—and not just new but the height of excitement in an industrial age. Machinery was creeping into everyday life, but this was different. It wasn’t a hulking locomotive or a dangerous steam engine. It was personal; you could choose where to go, no longer constrained by train rails or the hassle of maintaining a horse. If you had the means to afford one and, perhaps more important, were secure enough in the middle class to have the leisure time, taking a ride was all the rage, especially if you could find a hill to chase your desire for speed. Speed, as an experience, was in itself a fairly new concept, and the bicycle made it accessible.
Bicyclists sought out hills to speed down, comparing notes with one another in their desire to feel the wind in their face. Capitol Hill was no exception, and of the several descents, the southwest side (intersecting First Street SW) was particularly prized. As our gripman put it, this “was largely patronized by cyclists who exhibited the prevailing spirit of recklessness which characterizes most riders of the present day.”
The two modes of transportation came to a deadly head on a late summer night in 1882. The car was coming down the hill and making the turn onto First Street when “one of these cyclists came coasting down that hill at full speed, and crashed into my car just between the horses and the dashboard. The rider had evidently lost control of his wheel, and the instant I saw him, just a second before he struck, I observed that he was coasting with both legs hanging over the handle bar.” The gripman jumped to his rescue, but it was too late. The rider was thrown under the car, and it ran over him just below the thigh. He died shortly afterward in the hospital.
Of course, the story didn’t end there. The gripman continued working on the line, putting the incident behind him. But about a year after they upgraded from bob-tails to cable cars, he began noticing cyclists darting out at him from behind the very same row of hedges as had the last poor unfortunate. Each time, it was late at night, near midnight. Each time, the cyclist was real, not some phantom vision or apparition. And each time, the gripman quickly brought the car to a halt, convinced that he had run over another poor unfortunate. And of course, no sign of any cyclist could be found.
Interestingly enough, the cyclists had also upgraded. No longer were they riding the “penny-farthings” of early bicycling years, with a giant fifty-six-inch wheel, later called “ordinaries.” In keeping with the times, our poor gripman’s “phantom wheelman” had upgraded to modern “safeties,” with evenly sized wheels and chain drives. Because even ghosts don’t want to be caught out in a fad.