This cover right in his backyard is stamped with the word “Storm” and the name of the manufacturer: Chesapeake Foundries Inc. A delicate lattice pattern plays over the surface.
It’s a promising possibility for the old-school three-ring binder in which McCoy has, for the past year, been assembling a list of Georgetown’s historical, decorative and locally produced manhole and utility covers. (Manhole covers typically lead to sewer lines and are big enough for a person to fit through. Utility covers are smaller and usually provide access to gas or water lines; in the 19th century, they also opened up to coal chutes.)
McCoy figures that there are hundreds of beautifully crafted old metal plates from the turn of the 20th century around the District. Many, although once functional, are now merely relics, cast-iron insects trapped in amber. Well, actually brick. Or concrete. But they’re nearly all undocumented — and underappreciated. “There is literally history right under our feet,” says McCoy, with considerable passion.
In fact, as in many cities, you can trace Washington’s growth and industrial history through its manhole covers. “As more people moved to cities for jobs, the more there was a need for better sanitation,” says Jon Schladweiler, a Tucson-based sewer historian.
With sewers and manholes came the need for covers and a rise in foundries to produce them. At first, the covers were unadorned; the raised patterns and decorative flourishes that captivate McCoy were created out of necessity. “In the early days, horses and people would slip on the smooth surfaces,” Schladweiler explains. “Back then, everything was a learning process.”
McCoy stumbled, literally, across the first entry in his binder. He was out photographing a home on 31st Street NW for the Peabody Room’s file of Georgetown residences when his toe caught on something — and he tripped. “I looked down and saw this wonderful sunflower,” he remembers. “I was immediately smitten.”
Stamped in the center of that utility cover was the name of one F.&A. Schneider. Doing some research, McCoy learned about Frederick Schneider, a blacksmith born in 1812 and buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Schneider’s Union Foundry once stood at Pennsylvania Avenue and 18th Street NW.
“There were a lot of foundries in 19th-century Washington,” says McCoy, ticking off names like Fred J. White, who had a foundry at the current location of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and the Duvall foundry, which is now a contemporary office complex at 1050 30th St. NW. “The economy of 19th-century America was really localized,” he explains. “If you couldn’t make it, you didn’t need it.”
So far, McCoy, who’s 60, with a tidy beard and horn-rimmed glasses, has identified 15 manhole and utility covers for his survey. All are in Georgetown, dating from 1891 to 1908 (a boom time, he says). His findings will eventually be featured on Dig DC, the D.C. Public Library’s online special collections database.
McCoy does the reconnaissance work on his own time, usually over lunch or before heading home to Silver Spring, where he lives with his wife, Nan, a fiber artist, and where, he says, “the covers are all stamped ‘Made in India.’ That makes me feel sad.” Particularly because he is the founder and president of the Silver Spring Historical Society.
Today, though, things are looking up. Or rather, down. The sidewalks are slick with early-morning drizzle as he heads west on Q Street, into “uncharted territory.”
He opens his binder and consults a printout of a Google map marked heavily in orange. It looks like a football play, but it’s the ground he has already mapped. “There are boring things like that,” he says, pointing at a D.C. Water cover with his toe and giving it a dismissive kick. “Probably made out of plastic.”
In front of a red-brick townhouse at 3208 Q St. NW, he stops to consider a small plate with concentric rings, like a target. “Gee, this is kind of exciting,” he says. It could be an old coal chute! “It’s positioned right next to a basement window. That’s probably where the furnace was,” he muses.
It goes into the binder — No. 16. It’s his new favorite. Well, after the sunflower and a cover over at 1215 31st St. NW stamped with the Fred J. White foundry name. That one boasts no design, but it’s undeniably historical.
After an hour of wandering, McCoy is ready to call it a day. Other than a burning but unsatisfied desire to know what lies beneath his newly discovered covers, he seems pleased with his efforts. The only thing that would make him happier would be if Washington were just a little more like Japan, where each municipality designs its own unique covers. "They're enameled," he marvels. "Real works of art."
Cathy Alter is a freelance writer in Washington.