Washington DC: a potted history and reflections on the Metro



I’m currently visiting Washington DC for a short holiday. It’s a fascinating city with more museums per square mile than seems feasible for a country that’s a shade over 200 years old.

Washington itself was founded as a result of Philadelphia being too far north. It rests on the Potomac river, considered the boundary between Northern and Southern America. At the end of the Revolutionary War (the first one) the states of Maryland and Virginia offered up sections of land to create a city and a district separate from the other states, which was to be the capital of this new independent country. This was named the District of Columbia, after Christopher, and the city itself called Washington after the hero of the war and the country’s first president.

The city has become a shrine to Washington: a replica dome of that on the Cathedral in St Petersburg tops the Capitol Building with ‘The Apotheosis of Washington’, depicting him taking his place among the saints, painted inside, and dominating the skyline is a monolithic and Masonic monument to his honour.


His wife Martha was asked upon his death whether they could bury his body in the place where the monument now stands but she refused, saying that he was just a man and should be buried with his family at Mount Vernon. It was suggested instead that upon her death they might both be interred together in the crypt beneath the rotunda but she again refused. I imagine she wouldn’t be too pleased with the way things have turned out, including all the stamps, currency and institutions bearing her name. I reckon Washington himself probably wouldn’t have minded though; it is a most impressive monument after all.

The city was planned by a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and is set out very like Paris, minus the canal. There was a canal at one time, but this was drained into the Tidal Basin and filled in after the water caused widespread illness and death, including that of Lincoln’s son.

Like Paris, it has a metro system. Unlike Paris, this one has only 5 lines, with a 6th in planning. Being the intrepid commuter I am, I was keen to use this in our travelling across the city.


The entrance at Dupont Circle is not well signposted, as if to keep it from prying tourists and visitors. Going down the ponderous escalator feels a lot like entering a dark and brutalist womb, especially with the words of Walt Whitman etched into the concrete above our heads:

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night – some are so young;
Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad…


Of four attempts to ride the red line, 2 were thwarted by delays and at a time when it was hugely inconvenient (Hello? Is anyone else here in a hurry?). It was too easy to make comparisons with the London Underground at this point, which is, of course, the best underground network in the world; the rosy glow of history had set in after only a week.

During our visit we had the good luck to meet and talk with Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois (D), who told us he thinks London public transport is wonderful. This clearly is a man with good judgement, as if being a democrat weren’t evidence enough. 24 hours later I appreciated the Washington DC benchmark.

The second fateful journey was on the morning of our departure, when speed was not only of the essence, it was necessitated by the knowledge my Mum would kill me if we missed our train.

As we sat in the taxi, careering its way through DC traffic as if a good tip depended on it, Mum seethed quietly beside me. I realised I wasn’t angry, just disappointed: “But I believe in public transport,” I whined pathetically, as we skipped nimbly past another red light.

We arrived at Union Station with one minute to go, only to find the gate had closed and we had missed our train. Determined that Mum would not be let down, I marched to the ticket line hoping to transfer the ticket without too much reliance on the efficacy of an English accent in America.

It seemed God, or at least the aspect of him that oversees travel and transport, had heard my earlier invocation: the overhead wires that power the trains north to New York were down and every train was stalled. Thank God for shoddy investment in transport infrastructure!

It took only a few tears and logical reasoning to convince the lovely Amtrak staff that they could still let us onto the train, since it wasn’t exactly going anywhere.

And so 2 hours later our train was towed away from the District of Columbia by a Diesel engine. Praise Washington for our deliverance.


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