Statue of Alexander Robey Shepherd

If you ride by the D.C. Council Building at the northwest corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), you will see a statue of Alexander Robey Shepherd.  What few people know, however, is that much like the man being commemorated; the statue itself also has an interesting history of ups and downs.

Shepherd was born in 1835 to a poor family in Southwest Washington, and quit school when he was 13 years old. He got a job with a plumbing company, worked his way up, and eventually bought the business.  He then went on to become influential in banking circles, as well as a dominant factor in buying and developing real estate. By the end of the Civil War he was not only a successful businessman, but an influential and successful political player as well.

D.C. had become a city in disarray by the time the Civil War ended in 1865.  It had doubled in size, but had no real infrastructure.  The roads were mud ruts, there was no running water or sewers, and very few street lights.  The city was in such bad shape that there was even talk of moving the nation’s capitol from D.C. to St. Louis.  When the D.C. Board of Public Works was formed to correct the problem, the powerful and influential Shepherd got himself appointed to the board.  He lost no time in taking over the task of rehabilitating D.C., and earning the nickname of “Boss.”

Boss Shepherd’s crowning achievement came when his friend, President Ulysses Grant, appointed him in 1873 to be the territorial governor.  The glory was short lived, however.  His term in office was controversial, and allegations of fraud and corruption were rampant.  An audit of the city’s books showed that Shepherd had overrun the budget by millions, and the city had to declare bankruptcy.  On top of that, investigators discovered that Shepherd had awarded all the best contracting jobs to his cronies and favored improvements in the areas where he and his friends owned property.  The congressional investigation led to him being fired, and Congress soon took over direct administration of D.C.  A few years later, Shepherd declared personal bankruptcy and moved his family to Mexico.  Eventually, he once again became successful, making a fortune in silver mining.

To honor him, a statue of Shepherd was erected in front of the D.C. Council Building in 1909.  But much like his up and down career, attitudes toward the statue have fluctuated up and down over the years.  At various times it was placed in storage, and in 1979 the statue was exiled to a spot near the city’s Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.  Most recently, in 2005, the statue was moved back to its original place of honor in front of the D.C. Council Building.  In hindsight, historians give him credit for modernizing and beautifying Washington and he is known, particularly locally, as “The Father of Modern Washington.”  At this time, his statue remains in from of the D.C. Council Building, where it overlooks the city that retained the privilege of being the nation’s capitol, thanks to the Boss.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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