facts & history in brief
Washington DC the capital and
administrative centre of
It is bounded on one side by the Potomac
River and by the state of Maryland on
the other sides and
covers 111 sq km. (69 sq miles).
In 1790, during George Washington's Presidency,
the US Congress chose the Potomac as a natural
midpoint that would satisfy both northern and
southern states to set up the District of
Columbia as the national capital.
There was the added advantage, that it
was just across the river from George
Washington's home in Mount Vernon.
The Congress met in Philadelphia, New York,
and Princeton among a variety
of cities before that.
It is named after George Washington,
in whose presidency it was established,
on land ceded to Congress by Maryland
and Virginia to create the District of
Columbia (named for Christopher Columbus),
an area 'ten miles square' (26 sq km).
It was planned and partly laid out by
a French engineer, Major Pierre
Charles L'Enfant, whose work was
completed by Major Andrew Ellicott
and Benjamin Banneker, after
L'Enfant was fired.
In 1793 work started on
the ornate Capitol
and torched by British troops in 1812.
A vote to abandon the capital
was lost by only nine votes in the years
Charles Dickens wrote of 'the City
of Magnificent Distances,' complaining
about 'spacious avenues that
begin in nothing and lead
mile-long, that only want houses,
roads, and inhabitants,
that need but a public',
after visiting Washington.
During the Civil War construction of
the elaborate Capitol dome was nearly
abandoned until President Lincoln remarked,
'If people see the Capitol going on, it is
a sign we intend the Union shall go on.
After he was assassinated the Washington
assumed the nations leadership.
A beautification plan at the turn of the
century added most of the landscaping, parks,
and monuments for which
Washington is now well known.
John F Kennedy, called it 'a city of Southern
efficiency and Northern charm.'
Washington's is a beautiful city
with it's tree-lined avenues and
impressive architecture with many
famous buildings including the Congress
building, the Washington Monument and
Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon, the
White House, the Smithsonian Institute,
the National Art Gallery and
many other museums.
Today's Washington is ringed by a freeway
called the Beltway, which divides the
urban insiders from the suburbans.
The Capitol building isn't just the
symbolic centre of Washington.
The city is divided into four
compass-point points, N. Capitol St,
E. Capitol St, S. Capitol St and the Mall.
Identical addresses appear in
all four quadrants, which could be rather
confusing for new comers,
especially ones that are not familiar with
the 'American' street system. (Like yours truly).
Hui Chin and I didn't get the Limousine
and red carpet service on our arrival to Washington.
The airport was rebuilt or expanded or
something similarly disruptive and chaotic,
since my last visit to Washington.
The old lady at the 'information kiosk'
probably wished we would disappear for
interrupting her doing visibly nothing.
There was no one else there and she
was looking at us approaching, but
her answers were curt and negative.
She was wearing a name tag with
'volunteer' emphasised on it.
She wasn't volunteering much information our way.
We wanted to know how to get to downtown
cheaply and whether there was any
organised city sightseeing tour and
any good budget accommodation in or
near downtown etc.
We were told the only way to
downtown was by taxi,
for between $35-$50.
(We are talking US dollars here too,
poor New Zealanders.
We are very disadvantaged when
we travel overseas, because the value
of our dollar is very distorted by
an 'artificial exchange rate'.
While we can purchase more with
our dollar at home we loose more than
half at the time of writing at
the exchange.) and that the driver will
know the best hotels for us.
After asking a couple of
not-so-pompous and more helpful airport stuff,
we found the public bus outside,
which took us to the nearest metro
station, that took us right to downtown.
After leaving our bags in the
lockers at the Union Station,
we found the 'sightseeing buses'
right outside the station.
It was one of those user friendly
service, where you can hop-on and
hop-off at the major sights to
have time for a 'good look'.
So off we went to see the
attractions of Washington,
the grand Capitol, sitting
majestically on a small manmade hill.
While inside we joined a conducted
tour before we visited the Library
of Congress, (Some library, they
get a copy of every book printed just
about anywhere, so we
were told) not far away.
The White House was our next stop.
Although, because of 9/11, we
couldn't see as much as I did see in 1996.
This applied to many places in
Washington and many places in the US.
Our sightseeing included the
Federal Bureau of Investigation
where we saw some crime laboratories,
DNA testing, many confiscated
items before and a live
We took a lift up the Washington
Monument to learn about its chequered
beginning (Took more than 37 years
to complete) and walked back down
The Lincoln Memorial was next on our list,
which of course had to coincide
with the bus's route.
Than we went to the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial, with its many notes, medals,
flowers and mementoes left by survivors,
family and friends.
One of the more interesting hands-on
experiences was the Smithsonian
Institution's National Air & Space
Museum with it's many full-size air
and spacecraft, including the Wright
brothers' plane and the Apollo
There are about 13 museums and zoos
included in the Smithsonian Institution
on the Mall.
As most tours we ended up in Arlington
National Cemetery where we visited
the Tomb of the Unknowns, changing
of the guard and the graves of President
Kennedy with its 'Eternal Flame',
Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy
Onassis, which is just outside
Washington, so is the Pentagon, which
we couldn't tour inside.
That 9/11 again.
We found our brief visit to
the C&O Canal National Historic
Park quiet interesting with it's locks and history.
You can click on these photos for an enlargement.
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