Did you know that Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee residence that overlooks the Memorial Bridge, was built by George Washington’s step-grandson and inspired the name of the county where it is located in Virginia? Have you heard of Jackson City, which once stood at the base of the 14th Street Bridge and was known for gambling, saloons, and prostitution? Did you know that the red sandstone used in the Smithsonian’s castle building came from the bluffs of the Potomac River?
Garrett Peck, author of the newly released book The Potomac River, knew none of those factoids about the Washington area before he started spending his nights, weekends, and vacation time traveling up and down one of the nation’s most famous waterways.
“You can’t write a guidebook about something you don’t experience yourself,” Peck said. “Two-thirds of [the Potomac] is upriver from us. So I gave myself a research map. I got in my car every weekend and went out to different places.”
Peck’s day job is at Verizon Wireless, where he has worked as a global analyst for 17 years. Until 2002, he had never put his knack for writing or his history degree to use. It was the threat of losing his job at the troubled WorldCom, which Verizon eventually acquired, that forced him into his hobby.
The Potomac River is Peck’s third book and the first that does not concentrate solely on the Prohibition era. His first two books were The Prohibition Hangover and Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t.
Many of D.C.’s emerging historians have never taught a college course or received a grant. They are amateurs like Peck who pay the bills through their day jobs and explore the city’s history in their spare time. A 24-year-old journalist single-handedly updated D.C.’s Wikipedia page. A White House social-media guru publishes a blog on the homes of D.C.’s famous former residents. And, according to Peck, the District’s current residents are eating it up.
He dispels the notion that the nation’s capital is too transient to care about its local history. “This is a livable, breathable city with its own history beyond Congress,” Peck said.
In his research, Peck has met multigenerational D.C. families whose members settled and grew up in the area. And even congressional staffers—perhaps the most transient residents—have an interest in local history. Many have joined Peck on tours and even commissioned him to speak at birthday parties.
Peck, 44, has a nontraditional way of telling a story. At a birthday party for a Democratic Capitol Hill aide in February, he asked the audience if they knew what was located on the site of what today is the Kennedy Center during Prohibition. Turns out, it was an ice factory, transformed from a brewery to turn a profit during the ban on alcohol. How did members of Congress get their booze during Prohibition? They bought it from a man named George Cassiday, aka “The Man in the Green Hat,” who was given his own office to keep his bootlegging business running.
Peck churned out one quirky anecdote after another, giving the audience a catalog of fun facts to pull out at happy hours.
Last weekend, Peck spoke at the Literary Hill Bookfest at Eastern Market, and in June he will host his annual Temperance Tour to point out all the locations of the old speakeasies and secret distilleries.
Peck has fun with his hobby, but it does not come without challenges. He serves as his own photographer, and he had to resort to using his iPhone to capture many of the views featured in The Potomac River when his camera broke in the middle of his research. His mother shot his author portrait, which happens to be a picture of Peck playing dead at the foot of the The Exorcist stairs in Georgetown.
But the trials of an amateur historian have led to triumphs as well. On the last day of his research, Christmas Eve 2011, Peck took a finally-functional camera to the banks of Accokeek Creek. The sky was gray and Peck was sure he couldn’t get a good shot of the water. But he turned around to find two bald eagles nesting in a tree before his lens. Peck said he felt like the cosmos was blessing him as he snapped their picture.
Peck researches stories the same way he tells them: “You have to see the humor and absurdities in things,” he said.
This article appears in the May 8, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.