As 2017 drew to a close, the winning name for the new park in NoMa at 3rd and L Streets, NE was Swampoodle. This curious, antiquated, whimsical name, quite literally from the mists of DC history, had won the park naming contest. It had a quirky appeal. But what of the original Swampoodle?
Swampoodle was the epithet given to an area of several blocks around the intersection of North Capitol and K Streets. The name was applied in the 1850s, although when exactly is unknown. The earliest reference I have been able to find is from 1855 — which is several years earlier than any other recorded reference historians and researchers have produced to date. The Daily Union of October 3, 1855, reported (copying from the previous day’s Evening Star): “Fatal shooting affair — A place called Swampoodle, (in the Northern Liberties,) and a disreputable locality, was last night the scene of a lamentable occurrence.”
This may not be the christening of the neighborhood or locale but it is the closest to it we have. It begins in violence, suitable to its reputation. Some other clues about the name: Swampoodle is part of, in some way, the larger area called the Northern Liberties. “Northern Liberties” is an unfamiliar one in Washington, DC history and refers to a rather ill-defined area arcing north of H Street to Boundary Street, spanning (at least) from Mt. Vernon Square to North Capitol Street. The Northern Liberties Market situated on Mt. Vernon Square took the name from its location at the west end.
B.B. French’s June 1861 photograph shows a rural cluster of houses and trees; the Tiber is not visible, nor anything one might characterize as “swampiness.” The area was the center of the Tiber Creek Valley. Capitol Hill lay south, reaching Delaware Avenue on the west and D and E Streets on the north. English Hill lay west, bounded by New Jersey Avenue on the east and 4th Street on the west. Over 150 years of urban development and road grading have obscured the old contours. Over four million tons of fill extended Capitol Hill north to allow for the construction of Union Station.