“John Richardson's lucid biography of the central figure in Washington’s municipal history before the 1970s will benefit Washingtonians but also historians of all American cities. Through painstaking research, Richardson reveals common themes in the two seemingly disconnected segments of Shepherd’s storied career: as the visionary but imperious public works official who made Washington a modern city in the 1870s, and then as the imperialistic operator of American-owned mines in Díaz-era Mexico.”
Alan Lessoff, author of The Nation and Its City: Politics, “Corruption,” and Progress in Washington, D.C, 1861–1902
“This fascinating study of Shepherd—a kind of proto-Robert Moses—belongs on any bookshelf devoted to the evolution of the American cityscape. The strength of Richardson’s research and writing is in the care and balance he brings to the tale. Washington, D.C., comes alive here, and so does Shepherd: sometimes hero and sometimes villain, he is always compelling and utterly human.”
Scott W. Berg, author of Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.
“With skill, nuance, and the mining of primary sources, John Richardson brings visionary and/or corrupt political hack Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd, the remarkable ‘New Washington,’ and the heady early years of the Gilded Age to life.”
Kathryn Allamong Jacob, author of King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-about-Washington in the Gilded Age
“The controversy surrounding Shepherd’s legacy can be reduced to a single question: Do the ends justify the means? Richardson concludes that the physical development that Washington experienced during Shepherd’s leadership of the Board of Public Works did indeed justify the exorbitant financial costs, the questionable business practices, and the loss of self-government.…It is a tribute to Richardson’s careful research and balanced narrative that many readers may disagree with his assessments of this fascinating but flawed man.”
With Alexander Robey Shepherd, John P. Richardson gives us the first full-length biography of his subject, who as Washington, D.C.’s, public works czar (1871–74) built the infrastructure of the nation’s capital in a few frenetic years after the Civil War. The story of Shepherd is also the story of his hometown after that cataclysm, which left the city with churned-up streets, stripped of its trees, and exhausted.
An intrepid businessman, Shepherd became president of Washington’s lower house of delegates at twenty-seven. Garrulous and politically astute, he used every lever to persuade Congress to realize Peter L’Enfant’s vision for the capital. His tenure produced paved and graded streets, sewer systems, trees, and gaslights, and transformed the fetid Washington Canal into one of the city’s most stately avenues. After bankrupting the city, a chastened Shepherd left in 1880 to develop silver mines in western Mexico, where he lived out his remaining twenty-two years.
In Washington, Shepherd worked at the confluence of race, party, region, and urban development, in a microcosm of the United States. Determined to succeed at all costs, he helped force Congress to accept its responsibility for maintenance of its stepchild, the nation’s capital city.
John P. Richardson is a retired intelligence officer, Middle East specialist, and author of a previous study on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is an officer of two Washington area historical organizations and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia. More info →
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In 1910 John Merven Carrère, a Paris-trained American architect, wrote, “Learning from Paris made Washington outstanding among American cities.” The five essays in Paris on the Potomac explore aspects of this influence on the artistic and architectural environment of Washington, D.C., which continued long after the well-known contributions of Peter Charles L’Enfant, the transplanted French military officer who designed the city’s plan.Isabelle
Despite his military achievements and his association with many of the great names of American history, Godfrey Weitzel (1835–1884) is perhaps the least known of all the Union generals. After graduating from West Point, Weitzel, a German immigrant from Cincinnati, was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.
While the majority of scholarship on early Washington focuses on its political and physical development, in Incidental Architect Gordon S. Brown describes the intellectual and social scene of the 1790s and early 1800s through the lives of a prominent couple whose cultural aspirations served as both model and mirror for the city’s own.When William and Anna Maria Thornton arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1794, the new nation’s capital was little more than a raw village.
At the age of thirty-six, in 1852, Lt. Montgomery Cunningham Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers reported to Washington, D.C., for duty as a special assistant to the chief army engineer, Gen. Joseph G. Totten. It was a fateful assignment, both for the nation’s capital and for the bright, ambitious, and politically connected West Point graduate.Meigs’s forty-year tenure in the nation’s capital was by any account spectacularly successful.
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