D.C. trivia: Monumental mistakes and little known tidbits

DC trivia Washington Monument

The Washington Monument has a colorful history. Check out other weird but true D.C. trivia below. (Photo: H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY)

DealChicken spends a lot of time hunting and pecking around the D.C. area in search of the best daily deals. So it’s no surprise he’s come across more than a few interesting facts. Here’s a bit of local D.C. trivia that even your favorite fine-feathered know-it-all didn’t know until recently.

Due to a drawn-out construction schedule, the Washington Monument is actually two different colors. The building of Robert Mill’s design began before they’d raised enough money to finish the job. And, this being our nation’s capital, funding ran dry in 1854, about halfway through the project. For over two decades, the city was stuck with a not-so-soaring reminder of what the nation is supposed to stand for. Finally, in 1876, financing revved back up, and construction restarted with stone from a different source. The new stone looked like a perfect match at the time. But after Mother Nature had her way with it for a few years, the two types weathered to different shades. Talk about a monumental bummer.

If it weren’t for a bunch of icky bugs, we would have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Cherry Blossoms in 2010, instead of 2012. Tokyo sent the original shipment of cherry blossom trees in 1910. But upon arrival, inspectors discovered they were infested with insects, and ordered them to be burnt on the spot.  As a result, the first cherry blossom trees—from a new, bug-free shipment—were planted in Washington D.C. in 1912.

Much of today’s National Mall was once under water. In 1881, the Potomac rose so high, it was within 3 blocks of flooding the White House. Scientists and other smart folk began researching ways to manage the river’s waters—and keep the president high and dry. As a result of their work, the Tidal Basin was created in the early 1900s, draining the area where the Mall now sits. That 700 acres of reclaimed land was set aside to be “forever held and used as a park for recreation and pleasure of the people.”

Washington’s streets follow a grid of numbers and letters. But in the lettered streets, there is no “J.” Of course, rumors and conspiracy theories abound, leading to many wrong answers on D.C. trivia game nights. But the truth is that, when the streets were being planned, the alphabet wasn’t quite finished yet. Colonial-era folks just weren’t sure about the letter “J,” which many considered to be a different pronunciation of “I.” Jeepers!

The Smithsonian is named for an Englishman who never set foot on American soil. James Smithson was an English scientist who died in 1829. He left his fortune of more than $500,000 “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” You can bet his heirs weren’t too happy about that. Today, you can drop by and say “thank you” to Mr. Smithson. His remains were moved to the Smithsonian Castle in 1904.

For years, Bill Cosby was the only customer to eat for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. institution since 1958. A sign reading, “Bill Cosby is the only person who eats for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl” was in place for years. After the 2008 election, the Obamas were added to the sign. Shortly thereafter, President-Elect Obama stopped in for an order of half-smokes. However, being all presidential and everything, he insisted on paying.  

D.C. is chock-a-block with parks and squares, which many drivers see as the source of all of their traffic woes. But those pretty plazas were strategically placed to protect the city. The theory was that, if the city were invaded from the water, the opposing military would be unable to easily drive weapons and units into the city center from the water. Pretty smart, huh?

In 1921, Prohibition forbade the transportation of alcohol. This was just fine for the members of the American Temperance Society, but a real problem for outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, who did not want to leave his fine wine collection in the White House for his successor to savor. So, he appealed to Congress. They passed a special law that allowed one person on one specific day to transport alcohol from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to 2340 S Street, which happened to be Wilson’s new home. Talk about special-interest legislation.

The city of Washington was named for—wait for it—George Washington, who picked the location. Meanwhile, the surrounding District of Columbia was named for explorer Christopher Columbus. After the American Civil War, the city of Washington expanded beyond its originally planned boundaries, and became legally indistinguishable from the District of Columbia. The combined name Washington D.C. came into use when Congress passed the Organic Act of 1801.

Planning for the I-495 Beltway began in 1950. At the time, the project was typically referred to as the Washington Circumferential Highway. (How’s that for a mouthful?) But when the road was formally completed in 1964, it was only 2-3 lanes wide on each side. Today, this behemoth stretches as wide as 12 lanes.

Did you already know these bits of D.C. trivia? Check out our Wilmington history.