Pole Hill, Red Hill, Mount Alto

The highest point in the corporate limits of the City of Georgetown went by several names: Pole Hill, Red Hill, and Mount Alto, among others.

In the 19th century the the view from the heights was frequently depicted by artists and photographers, and played a significant role in the Civil War (see The View from the Heights, the Signal Camp, and The Signal Camp in Pictures).



Pole Hill

In the parlance of a former time, the highest point within the corporate limits of Georgetown was exposed to salubrious breezes, and enjoyed a commanding prospect. And yet, despite these advantages, during the first hundred years of local history, no one built a house on this desirable land.

A possible explanation for this may be the fact that the original survey of the Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown seems to have intended for High Street (Wisconsin Avenue) not to bend at Calvert Street, as it does today, but to continue straight up the hill. This had the unfortunate result of dividing an otherwise choice site into several awkward lots. Georgetown relinquished its claim to this inconvenient roadbed in 1861.

Georgetown Corporation Laws.––A resolution in favor of Doctor B.S. Bohrer.––Resolved by the Board of Aldermen and Board of Common Council of the Corporation of Georgetown, That the Recorder be and is hereby, requested to prepare, and the mayor to execute, a quit claim deed to Doctor B.S. Bohrer, conveying all the claim and interest of this Corporation in that part of the lot of Doctor Bohrer’s on High street, included within the lines of the original condemnation of High street, and now abandoned. Approved February 16, 1861. (Star, March 5, 1861)

Dr. Bohrer assembled the lots on the hilltop into a single parcel, and after the Civil War a Georgetown butcher began to build himself a house there. “The elegant villa erected by B.F. Hunt on Bohrer’s Hill is nearly complete.” (Georgetown Ordinances, February 16, 1861; Georgetown Courier, May 6, 1871; plat of “Mount Alto”, surveyed June 17, 1867, for buyers B.F.Hunt and Joseph Weaver, beginning at the “Northwest boundary stone of said town”, including the abandoned “Bed of Old High Street”:  DC Liber ECE17 (1867) f. 46-8)

The place the Courier called Bohrer’s Hill was more commonly known as Pole Hill. “Benjamin F. Hunt has erected a fine residence on Pole Hill where he can doubtless keep cool this warm weather, as it is perhaps the highest ground of the District, and commands a fine panoramic view of the surrounding cities”. As early as 1858, Mary Ann Clark, whose house once stood at about 2500 Wisconsin Avenue, was described as living at the “foot of Pole Hill”. The name extended as far south as 2133 Wisconsin Avenue: “Theodore Barnes is building a fine frame dwelling opposite the residence of Henry Weaver, on Pole Hill“. (Georgetown Courier, July 30, 1870; 1858 Directory of Georgetown; Georgetown Courier, May 6, 1871)

Until Mr. Hunt’s house was built, Pole Hill had been an open area on the edge of town where a crowd could gather. “For the fair fame of our city we would fain deny that there are “bruisers” among us; but they exist here, as we learn by a note received yesterday, in rather poor chirography, in which mention is made of the disappointment of a crowd, who gathered on Pole Hill last Thursday to see “the fun” of two creatures made in the image of God battering each other to a jelly. Prizefighting may be “sport” to the spectators but it is awfully demoralizing; and we therefore commend the good sense of the young men who displayed what the writer terms “the white feather” by not appearing on the ground.” (Georgetown Courier, May 8, 1869)

The city referred to is Georgetown; why its highest point was called Pole Hill is unknown. The site would, of course, be a natural location for a beacon pole (and the existence of such a pole might have been connected to the choice of the location of the Signal Camp of Instruction during the Civil War). There is some evidence for the use of ceremonial poles for the display of political party banners––but unfortunately, on the wrong side of Rock Creek: “The Pole Dedication by the Democracy [i,e. Democratic Party] of the first ward of Washington on Tuesday evening was perhaps the finest display of the kind that has occurred in or around the District during the present campaign.” (Georgetown Courier, October 3, 1868)

The name Pole Hill remained in use for several decades, as in this news item concerning the streetcar powerhouse at Calvert and Wisconsin. “A coal car of the Tenleytown railway, loaded with five tons of coal, got loose on Pole Hill, the steep grade beyond the power house.” (Star, August 28, 1899)



Red Hill

A hill may have more than one name, and so, it turns out, Mary Ann Clark, living at the “foot of Pole Hill”, also lived at the foot of Red Hill. The Signal Corps of the United States, born a stone’s throw from her house, names as its 1861 birthplace “Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C.” And here is a report of a death in a family that lived exactly where Miss Clark had lived. “Dreadful Death.- On Friday, the 7th of August, an interesting four-year old child named John F. Schneider, son of John C. Schneider, butcher, who transacts business at stall No. 37, Centre Market, Washington, was bitten in the calf by a house dog of the mongrel species, at their residence, foot of what is commonly known as Red Hill, on the Tenallytown Road.” Clearly, Pole Hill and Red Hill are one and the same. (Brown, The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion, 1896; Georgetown Courier, October 17, 1874)

Once, while proposing that the time was ripe for a streetcar to Tenallytown, the Courier wrote that the route was to be over Red Top Hill. An abundance of its subsoil had at one time been exposed to view. The 1865 Georgetown tax assessment of Eben G. Brown, for example, tells that the west part of lot 262 in  Beatty & Hawkins’ Addition––the site of the present Russian Embassy––was “valuable for its loam used in foundries for casting”. Material from this same site also found its way into municipal street grading: “Earth from Red Hill [was] laid down in various Georgetown streets.” (Courier, February 18, 1871, August 13, 1870)

When, fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the Signal Corps veterans came back to Georgetown for a reunion at the scene of their wartime training, the reporter at the historic gathering anticipated the inevitable question, and offered this succinct explanation: “It is called Red Hill because of the color of its clay.” (Washington Star, Sept. 30, 1915)

That the site of Red Hill was within the old municipal boundaries of Georgetown was also still remembered fifty years later:  “Georgetown has the distinction of having furnished the largest sale of the week, although the property is so far out on the extreme northern point of the city lines as to be generally regarded as county property.” “The land is described as lots 293 to 305, 263, and part of lots 262 and 264, in square 1300, and is located on the west side of Wisconsin avenue, with the Tunlaw road forking for its north and western boundaries.” (“Biggest Sale In Georgetown”, Washington Times, May 22, 1915)



Mount Alto

Mary Ann Clark lived at about 2500 Wisconsin Avenue. When the Civil War broke out she fretted about possible damage to her property by Union soldiers, who were encamped north and west of her house, on a hill that people were accustomed to calling Pole Hill one day, and Red Hill the next. In 1861 the parcel of land just north of Clark had still another name: Mount Alto; and after the war, when it was sold, it went by that name too. “Part of lot 262, and all of lots 263, 264, and 300 on the Heights of Georgetown on the west side of High Street, containing some 17 acres, from which is now taken the celebrated yellow sand for government and other moulding purposes, probably the most commanding site in the district, it being named Mount Alto.” (Journal of Ann Green of Rosedale, June 26-27, 1861; Georgetown Courier, May 25, 1867)

“Georgetown has the distinction of having furnished the largest sale of the week, although the property is so far out on the extreme northern point of the city lines as to be generally regarded as county property. For a consideration indicated by the revenue stamps as $120,000, William S. Minnix conveyed a large unimproved tract on Wisconsin avenue and Tunlaw road to Charles F. Wood. The property is said to have been purchased in the interest of a Catholic educational institution, although the purchaser declines to discuss the plans and name of the institution. The land is described as lots 293 to 305, 263, and part of lots 262 and 264, in square 1300, and is located on the west side of Wisconsin avenue, with the Tunlaw road forking for its north and western boundaries.” (“Biggest Sale In Georgetown”, Washington Times, May 22, 1915)

The purchase was for the National School of Domestic Arts and Science, an institution which did not prosper. In 1918 the names Mount Alto School for Young Ladies, and Mount Alto Inn made brief appearances, to be succeeded a few years later by  Veterans Hospital No. 32, better known as Mount Alto Veterans Hospital.



 Carlton Fletcher

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