The millions of visitors who pass through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum each year come to see the real thing, the actual air and space craft that shaped history – from the world’s first airplane to the back-up hardware for the latest robot spacecraft on its way to explore another world. Few if any of our visitors, however, realize that aerospace history was made on the site of the National Air and Space Museum one hundred and forty eight years ago.
On June 16, 1861, the Civil War had been underway for just two months. The first major battle of the war, which would take place near a quiet stream called Bull Run, 30 miles southwest of Washington, was still a little over a month away. At the time, the Columbia Armory stood where the National Air and Space Museum is now located, east of 7th street, at the extreme southeastern tip of the 52 acre plot then known as the Smithsonian Grounds.
The neighborhood was far from being the tourist friendly area of today. The odiferous City Canal carried Washington’s sewage and waste water along the northern edge of the Mall and into the Potomac. Visitors were warned to beware of thieves while out for an evening stroll along the trails that wound through the trees and shrubs covering the marshy Smithsonian Grounds. For over two decades Mary Ann Hall had operated one of Washington’s best known houses of prostitution just one block to the east. Until the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia in 1850, Robey’s notorious slave pen stood one block west of the Armory site, at the corner of 8th and B Street (now Independence Avenue).
Built in 1856, the Columbia Armory housed the District of Columbia’s store of small arms and other military equipment. The Washington Gas Light Company generating plant was immediately east of the Armory, along with a large domed gasometer, or storage tank for the coal gas produced by the plant. It was the combination of the available work space at the Armory and city gas next door that led Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry to instruct Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe to inflate his balloon on this site.
A New Hampshire man, Lowe (1832-1913), had emerged as one of the nation’s best-known aerial showmen since his first flight in 1857. He made headlines with a giant balloon exhibited in both New York and Philadelphia, with which he hoped to fly the Atlantic. When that plan fell through, and on the advice of Joseph Henry, his scientific advisor, Lowe made a long flight from Cincinnati to Unionville, SC aboard the balloon Enterprise, on April 19, 1861. Landing only a week after the firing on Fort Sumter, the aeronaut was taken into custody by newly minted Confederates, and was released only after locals recognized his face from accounts of his transatlantic plans published in the illustrated national newspapers of the day.
Urged on by Joseph Henry, and armed with letters of introduction to political figures in the new Lincoln administration, Lowe packed the Enterprise and traveled to Washington. Henry took the aeronaut to meet with the President on June 11, assuring Lincoln that Lowe was a leader in the field. With a small sum provided by the War Department, Lowe made a series of tethered ascents from the area in front of the Armory. The most important of those flights came on June 16, 1861, when Lowe made a tethered ascent to 500 feet accompanied by telegrapher Herbert Robinson and George Burns, supervisor of the telegraph company. With a clear view of the nation’s capital spread before him, Lowe sent a telegram to the White House.
“This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter. The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene. I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.”
Having sent the first telegram from the air, Lowe ordered his balloon winched down to the ground and walked to the White House, where he met with the President once again. The two stayed up to the early hours of the morning discussing the military potential of balloon reconnaissance. Lincoln insisted that Lowe spend the night at the White House so that the pair could continue their discussion over breakfast.
Lowe was not the first aeronaut to attempt to create a balloon observation unit for the Union army. The combination of Joseph Henry’s assistance, Lowe’s powers of persuasion, and Lincoln’s enthusiasm carried the day, however. The aeronaut continued to struggle to overcome the intransigence of military bureaucrats for several more weeks. Finally, on July 25, President Lincoln intervened once again, providing Lowe with a personal note to Winfield Scott, the aging commander of Union forces, instructing the general to meet with Lowe and provide him with the assistance required to continue his demonstrations, and to create a reconnaissance balloon unit.
Lowe and his balloonists would make thousands of reconnaissance flights over the next two years, coming under fire during the Peninsula campaign of 1862, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in 1863, and in other battles and theaters of operation. While circumstances beyond Lowe’s control brought the experiment to a conclusion before the end of the war, he had repeatedly demonstrated the value of aerial reconnaissance. A century and a half later, the ability to gather intelligence from above remains a critical requirement for the defense of the nation. It all began with T.S.C. Lowe, in the front yard of what would one day become the National Air and Space Museum.
and later …
Thaddeus Lowe returned to the Columbia Armory in 1862 to test the portable gas generators developed to inflate balloons in the field. A wartime photograph shows the wagons in operation on this spot. The Arsenal was transformed into a hospital later in the war. By 1865, the tents of what had become known as the Armory Square Hospital stretched across the Mall almost to the City Canal. The Armory building continued to dominate the corner of 7th and Independence until it was torn down in 1964. The area was an empty lot sometime used for parking until the Smithsonian broke ground for the new National Air and Space Museum a decade later. Today the Museum, the latest occupant of the site, houses a U-2 spy plane, a high-tech descendant of Lowe’s Enterprise.
Elizabeth Peterson took over Mary Ann Hall’s “boarding house” around 1878. The 1880 Washington Directory listed her occupation, and that of her six “boarders,” as prostitution. Three years later, when the ladies transferred their operations to another address, the house at 349 Maryland Avenue became a women’s health clinic, then a school for Black children, and finally a YMCA for African Americans. During the early years of the 20th century, the area was the site of the notorious Louse Alley, a center of poverty and illicit activity. This stretch of Maryland Avenue was cleared in the 1930s, and housed a temporary office building during WW II. When archaeologists went to work on the site in preparation for the construction of the National Museum of the American Indian in the early 1990s, they unearthed everything from Champagne corks to fine dinner ware, reminders of the days when Mary Ann Hall ran the best little … establishment … in Washington…on this spot.
Tom Crouch is a Senior Curator in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum.