The Plumber Who Saved Washington

In 1865, the half-day rate for a plumber and assistant was $3.25 and lead sold for 60 cents per pound. But this Civil War-era invoice reveals a much bigger tale.
The Plumber Who Saved Washington
An invoice for plumbing work done from Christmas Eve 1864 through December 1865, in Washington, D.C., made a lasting impression on PipeShark co-owner John Galligan.

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“See how they used to do this?” said my father a long time ago, pointing to an old framed invoice hanging in our shop. He was explaining an old trade tradition. The invoice was for plumbing work done from Christmas Eve 1864 through December 1865, in Washington, D.C., by plumber Alexander R. Shepherd. I didn’t take the time then to look any further than I needed to be respectful. 

I came across that invoice recently while sorting through old papers. We’re primarily paperless now, but I was being heartlessly efficient. If a paper was clearly needed, I scanned it and then trashed the original. I stopped at the old bill. Did I even need to scan it? I’m not related to this plumber except by trade. It was just another one of countless papers from the past. So I dropped it in the discard pile and moved on. 

Later as I read emails, I found my eyes drifting over to it. I picked it up again wondering why. The first reason is the penmanship. It’s beautiful – from a time when every hand expressed a unique personal style. 

Timing is everything
And then there’s the timing of the work. On Christmas Eve, 1864, Shepherd priced a kitchen sink. I imagine a dining table full of food and a family in the midst of preparation; but there was a war going on, so maybe not. When we think of those times we envision streets full of horses and wagons, and locomotives venting steam at the station. There were hospitals full of wounded soldiers, and the overworked people who cared for them.

There were also caskets loaded on some of those wagons and trains to start fallen soldiers on their final trip home to grieving families. Not really the Currier and Ives picture I would normally imagine. 

That Christmas the Civil War had been ongoing for two and a half years and the Northern forces were gaining the upper hand. 

In April 1865, Shepherd’s company replaced leather valves on some water pumps. The mood in the streets is now one of anticipation. In just four more days, the Civil War will be over. Five days after that the city’s mood will go from celebration to shock when John Wilkes Booth assassinates newly re-elected Abraham Lincoln. 

Life goes on
But daily life goes on and this invoice lists other work and other dates. Pipes repaired in May and more pump valves re-leathered in September. In November 1865 the half-day rate for a plumber and assistant was $3.25 and lead sold for $0.60 per pound. 

And who was Shepherd? The plumber was born into a wealthy Washington home. However, his father died when Shepherd was 10 and within three years the fortune was gone. So at 13, Shepherd left school to support his mother and six younger siblings. At 17, he became an apprentice for a Washington, D.C., plumber. Shepherd learned fast and worked hard such that when he signed this invoice, he was 30 years old and owned the company. He was competent, driven, likeable and involved in the community. He then applied his plumbing profits and experience to real estate and became a very wealthy and influential man in the little city. 

Building a new capitol
Presidents Washington and Jefferson had sought designs for a new capitol, which would embody the ideals of the new nation. Though they envisioned a grand city, Washington, D.C., was still just a small town of 75,000 people at the beginning of the Civil War. By 1870, it had swelled to 132,000. It had dirt roads, open sewers and stagnant canals. What little infrastructure it had was deteriorated.

That’s when our plumber here stepped up. Building on his experience in local politics, he helped convince Congress in 1871 to consolidate the D.C. area as a territory with an appointed government. Shepherd was appointed to the powerful Board of Public Works. Three years later he was appointed governor. In those four years, he totally transformed the city. 

Shepherd wanted to modernize and revitalize the city’s infrastructure and facilities. He built 157 miles of paved roads and sidewalks, 123 miles of sewers, 39 miles of gas mains, and 30 miles of water mains. The city planted 60,000 trees, built its first public transportation system, installed streetlights, and the railroad companies refitted tracks to accommodate new citywide grading regulations. Major changes were happening — quickly. 

Ponder those numbers for a moment: 123 miles of sewers, 39 miles of gas mains, 30 miles of water mains. Imagine what was involved in those days in installing 123 miles of sewers all graded for gravity flow. Workers were doing the engineering as they went. It wasn’t always pretty but it was effective. It was full speed ahead — and right over anything or anybody who stood in Shepherd’s path. 

Sam Smith, D.C. journalist and editor of The Progressive Review, recounts Shepherd’s tough attitude and persuasiveness in “A Short History of Home Rule":

“Shepherd’s persuasive skills were such that upon being called to account by the president of a railroad whose tracks on the Mall had been torn up one night by 200 of Shepherd’s men, he left the meeting with an offer to become the line's vice president,” Smith wrote. “His cunning was such that when he heard reports of a planned injunction against the removal of what he called a ‘wretched old market building’ on Mt. Vernon Square, he got a friend to take the one judge currently in the city out for a long ride in the country while Shepherd accomplished his mission.” 

When Shepherd was appointed governor, he continued his improvements and blew his original budget by three times. But since he had the power to issue construction bonds, he did so and pressed on with the work. 

In 1874, it all blew up on him. The city had a $13 million debt. An investigation highlighted some improvements done without concern for their effects on personal property or property taxes. Shepherd was criticized for running things without proper procedures, oversight or planning. His personal integrity remained intact, as he was never shown to have profited personally from the work, nor had he broken any laws. Nevertheless, he was fired and Congress set up a new Board of Commissioners to run the city. 

Modernism wins out
Whatever the cost, Washington, D.C., was now a thoroughly modern city thanks to a plumber who had the drive and the brass to actually build it. 

And what became of the man? While he was focused on the city, he had ignored his own finances. By 1876 he was bankrupt. So at the age of 41, financially Shepherd was back where he had started at 13. 

Today Shepherd is called “The Father of Modern Washington” and his statue stands at city hall. There is a Shepherd Park neighborhood and an Alexander Shepherd Elementary School. He helped create “The Capitol” just when the nation evolved from a collection of independent states to the new United States of America. Not a bad legacy for a plumber to leave behind. 

In the old days
I held the old invoice hearing my father’s booming voice say, “See how they used to do this?” I didn’t really listen then because I was concerned with the future, not the past. I didn’t think he noticed at the time, but now I believe he was thinking how as a young man he hadn’t really listened to the old stories either. His father had started plumbing with a pushcart in Philadelphia. 

Parkinson’s silenced my father’s voice a long time ago. I appreciate more now those who created an industry of which we can all be proud — especially those who guided my own hands. I thought for a bit about other past things — and that perhaps Alex Shepherd’s invoice deserved a new frame and another spot on the wall. 

About the Author
John Galligan is co-owner of PipeShark, which specializes in trenchless technology. The company is located in southeast Pennsylvania. Galligan can be reached at johng100@thepipeshark.com or visit the website at www.thepipeshark.com.



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