William Clipper helped to build the city of Washington, where his people have lived for over a century, but don't look for his name on any bronze plaques.
When they were erecting the Connecticut Avenue bridge, he drove a stone sledge and drilled blasting holes in the brownstone at Chain Bridge quarry. Swinging a 16-pound hammer, he cut stone for Union Station. In 1904, putting a bridge across the Potomac, he worked the windlass that wound the suited diver up and down in the water.
Mostly, he was a canaler. He grew up at Seneca when it was nothing but Fred Allnutt's mill and trading post on the C&O Canal. He started at 14, working on the grain boats - sometimes they paid you with a whipping, he said, they treated you like an animal, some of them - and at the end, until he died at 89 in 1972, he would fish in the same canal.
A famous figure, Bill Clipper, sitting on the canal bank in Georgetown in his tan raincoat, a widebrim black hat shading the strong old face. He got to talking with a young historian for the National Park Service, Ed Wesely, and Ed put some of it on tape.
There was a mule named Old Jerry. Pulled the work scow from Key Bridge to Great Falls every day until they retired him at 30. With age, his brown coat turned "red as a fox." Once he came up so quietly behind a man lounging on a canalboat that the man jumped at the touch of his muzzle and fell overbroad.
The last mule died in 1939. His name was Mutt.
Cordwood, chopped and sawed in Crossroads, now Potomac. Coal from Cumberland: The barges carried 130 the big pines area around Offutts tons and the trip down to Georgetown wharf took a week. The last load came down in 1923. Lime from the kilns at Antietam to be sold to farmers all along the canal, where the soil is acid. Grain for F.H. Darby's mill at Seneca Creek, for the warehouse on Sycamore Island, for the flour mill in Georgetown. When it rained, they'd open the hatches and let the wheat in the hold get get and heavy. Many a buyer paid for rainwater along with his wheat.
Water was let into the canal March 15. The whippoorwills always sang that day. Before it closed in December the icebreaker often had to bull through, its blunt bow low with pig-iron.
Bill loaded the brown sandstone from Jim Caton's mill onto wagons and sold it in Washington. The Smithsonian castle, Renwick gallery. The Pension building. Everything was brownstone before the quarries ran out and fashions changed.
Everybody knew about Aunt Priscilla, who put up wine at her place off River Road. She made wine from berries, corn, plums, tomatoes, almost anything that grew. Then some guy came up from Virginia and turned out a parship wine that was strong as whisky and ran her out of business.
When the Johnstown floodwaters reached the lower Potomac in 1889, the Clipper family lived in the lowlands near Seneca. The water roared through 70 feet high, Bill said, taking houses and barns with it, washing out the towpath for 10 miles at a stretch, overtaking and swallowing up a rider fleeing at full gallop, leaving dead cattle stuck high in the trees. He was 7. He remember moving to the hills and rescuing a white hog that floated past, adopting it.
You can see the high water mark on a sandstone bridge pillar at Seneca. The worst flood was in 1936. That mark is just a little higher, about 25 feet above the present water level.
After the '89 flood, a special crew of 500 italian immigrants rebuilt the towpath. Before them it was the Irish, who would work for $1.25 a day and who brought their old hatreds with them: 700 roustabouts tangled in the battle between County Cork and County Longford in 1936. Five men were killed. Cholera killed many more than that, and the bodies were hurriedly buried under the path.
Far back in the hills behind the canal, deep in the scrub, almost lost in a patch of ramping myrtle, is an old cemetery. John Clipper is there, born a slave in 1840, died July 30, 1907, Bill's father. And his mother Martha, died June 30 the same year. The names are carved by loving amateur hands in the soft brownstone.
There are a lot of Clippers and Jacksons in the hidden graveyard, which was rediscovered only recently by Bill's son Milton. When the family made a pilgrimage to the site last winter, Milton's son Milton Jr. decided to try and trace his origins.
No one seems to know the first name of John's father, but he was a slave in Hancock, Va., a fiddler who played for the master's children while his wife knitted socks for the other slaves. He died in slavery. John got away, joined the Union army after the Civil War ("Old marster laid down and died, it took all the juice outta him," Bill said, took a boat from Aquia Creek to Baltimore, then a train back to Washington and worked his way up the Potomac cutting cordwood. He met Martha Johnson, married, settled near the quarries.
The 1890 census lists eight children of John and Martha Clipper. Harry, one of the youngest, was the first to move to Berryville, a hamlet north of Seneca. He bought two acres 52 years ago, turned to farming when the canal was dying, and some of his brothers followed him. Others moved into Washington. Today Berryville - one of several communities built by black freemen around Washington after Emanicpation, like Tobytown and Martinsburg - is still inhabited by Clippers, still a prosperous, pretty farming village of white clapboard houses. The families who live in them are among the oldest in Washington.
Clipper Lane runs off River Road just east of Kenwood. Bill lived there for years, when he was working at the Agriculture Department's animal research station in Bethesda. He broke in a couple of zebras once, drove them up Wisconisn Avenue in triumph. He also managed Tom Pearson's farm: that would be Drew's father.
A gathering of clippers in a stately house deep in Northwest: there are 18 of them, four generations, including Cleveland, Bill's son. The younger Clipper cover a broad range of Washington life: furniture refinisher, Department of Commerce technician, NIH genetics specialist, paving contractor, IBM computer analyst, FHA and HEW people, gift shop clerK, cab driver, publishing firm executive, commercial artist, self-employed portrait photographer.
Cleveland has been a security guard most recently, but he recollects the days when a man earned $12 a year for hard labor on a dairy farm, when "working for the government" meant, to a black man, lifting 100-pound loads all day.
The others listen to him and his nephews and then they play Ed Wesley's tapes once again while the women pass around punch and cake.
"Sometimes you wouldn't get no money at all. Got 50 cents for a cord of wood, but you got paid in trade. A new ax handle."
"I recall coming from Pine Woods to River Road about 1912. Took a long time. Horse and wagon."
"From White's Ferry you could hear the band playing all the way over at Leesburg.Edwards Ferry was gone then, but not White's . . ."
A jumbled story. Bits and pieces, flashes of some scene long past, its brilliant reality imprisoned in one mind forever, for all the tapes and interviews and pleadings to try and tell it, tell how the morning air smelled, how the light glittered on the quiet water and leaf shadows flickered along the path, how the harness creaked, and the heavy rope, and the weary wood of the barge gunwale, how the mule's bell clinked softly in the thick summer air . . .
You can put it all down, all the deates of a life, all the places lived in and jobs worked at all the descendants and their dates and places and jobs, but it's still not enough, there's still that feeling you have missed the essence of it somewhere along the line, the taste of it, the wonderful miscellany of its moments. Maybe you should leave it jumbled, the way it happened.