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Fealy's Corner: 1920

Fealy's Corner: 1920

Washington, D.C., circa 1920. "Fealy's Corner, 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue." Dr. Martin Fealy's pharmacy at 1024 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.


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My great-great grandparents from Ireland lived at 1016 Pennsylvania Avenue SE in 1915 and had a grocery store there (he died at 1016). I would love to see some of the grocery stores the immigrants had in SE and SW Washington during the period of 1890-1915.

D.C. Down Under

Washington was one of two cities in the US (the other: New York, specifically Manhattan) to use a conduit system for provision of the necessary 600 volt DC power used to move streetcars. A device called a plow hung from the rear truck of the car, reaching down into the conduit. In the conduit were two conductors, similar to overhead trolley wire in other cities. Devices called shoes contacted the conductors, drawing the requisite current. The last remnants of the conduit system went out of service in January 1962 when the last three Washington streetcar lines were converted to bus operation.

Now, about cable cars: not only San Francisco had them, but so did nearly every other major Northern or Eastern city in the US from about 1882 to 1906 or so, including Washington. (Major exceptions: Boston and Minneapolis.) See "The Cable Car in America" by George W. Hilton.

Streetcar Tracks

Cable cars (as in San Francisco) are propelled by grabbing onto a cable that moves under the street. What appears to be a third rail is actually a slot through which a grip extends down from the car to grasp the moving cable. In the late 1800's to the early 1900's there were cable car lines in most large cities in addition to San Francisco -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas etc. With the advent of the faster electrial streetcars, most were replaced by the 1910's.

Some cities had electric streetcars drawing their power from a similar "third rail" slot in the middle of the track. Washington, D.C., had the most extensive system of this type, seen in the photo here. Subways use a third rail between the tracks to pick up their electrical power.

Streetcar Track

Anybody know if the groove between the rails was for cable access or was electric current picked up through this groove? Theres no overhead source of power.

I was under the impression that San Francisco had the only cable car system in the USA.

[The track is for electric streetcars, not cable cars (although there was a cable car loop in Georgetown). The electrical power supply here is under the middle groove. - Dave]

Why were these taken?

These real estate photos are wonderful documents, but what was their purpose? Some, like the pictures of the new row houses most likely figured in advertising for the properties. But photos like this, of an obviously established business, are a bit more puzzling. The most puzzling are the auto accident photos, Did the photographer just happen by, and decide it would make an interesting picture? Stringing for a newspaper?Any ideas, anyone?

[The National Photo clients for many of these were real estate developers. Who in this case might have included Dr. Fealy, who in the late teens bought up the block from 1020 to 1024 Pennsylvania. Perhaps he had a hand in putting up the rowhouses behind the pharmacy. It looks like some of them are still standing. - Dave]

Butterfield House

This corner is now a recently built condo block called Butterfield House, "constructed in the finest architectural tradition." The blog DC Mud has an article and high-res photo from approximately the same angle. And before any preservationists start to moan about the loss of historical buildings for another condo tower, this article notes that prior to the current project, the corner was occupied by a Shell station.

An instructive photo for me, in that I have never realized that the wide medians on Pennsylvania Ave SE are a relic of the streetcar system.

Four People?

I see one and I'm wondering just how much time was spent on making the photo. The one person I see is down the trolley track and doesn't seem to be blurred very much, which means that they barely moved. I'm still looking for the others, though.


Too bad they don't have time and date information written with these. When has a DC street ever been that empty?

[I see four people in this time exposure. One to the left of the mailbox. - Dave]

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