Notes from a roads scholar

THIS is the spring of discontent for residents of the nation's capital. It's the season of potholes, those unwelcome dividends of a harsh winter of neglect. Historically, Washington roads have been so bad that Congress - in 1802 and 1814 - threatened to move the capital to another city. Only nine votes kept Congress from bidding adieu to the District of Columbia. Contemporary stories about Washington's potholes abound. A friend of mine blew two tires when he bounced in and out of a pothole last spring. One pothole on Massachusetts Avenue has been dubbed Old Faithful because it emits sprays of water somewhat regularly. On nearby Van Ness Street a resident has posted a ``Pothole Beware'' sign near the curb of his house.

The old stories are even better. ``The entrance or avenues, as they are pompously called,'' noted a foreign visitor in 1806, ``which lead to the Am. seat of gov't, are the worst roads I passed in the country.... Deep ruts, rocks, and stumps of trees every minute impede yr. progress and threaten yr. limbs with dislocation.''

Then there was the story of one diplomat's carriage that got caught in mud ``to the axletree.... It was necessary to leave the carriage, which had to be dragged out and scraped to remove the mud and slush which stuck to it like glue.''

One of the reasons that Horace Greeley may have advised young people to go west in the mid-nineteenth century was because his visits to the nation's capital led him to believe that roads west simply had to be better than Pennsylvania Avenue, which he identified with the ``plagues of Egypt.''

But the best and still timely story about Washington roads, and the city's claim to fame, came from Irish satirist Thomas Moore after he visited the nation's capital in 1804:

``Where tribunes rule, where dusky Davi bow,

And what was Goose Creek once is Tiber now:

This embryo capital, where Fancy sees

Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees;

Where second-sighted seers e'en now adorn

With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn

Though now but woods - and Jefferson - they see

Where streets should run and sages ought to be.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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