Over the river and through the woods

over the river
by Tim Dennee

On those crisp clear days following a snowstorm, the hills east of the Anacostia River have always drawn scores of children to their slopes for winter recreation. In the pre-snowplow era, steep roads, almost impassable to other vehicles, were paths of least resistance and maximum fun.

Still partly wooded, Naylor and Good Hope Roads as they dropped from Good Hope Hill were famous sledding or “coasting” routes before the end of the nineteenth century. Home-made and commercially made sleds—tall curved-steel-runnered sit-down cutters, long and short clippers often ridden belly down, and multi-person “trucks” or bobsleds—all plied the powder together. In the heart of Anacostia, sledding parties would commandeer Morris Road, Maple View Place, the eastern end of W Street, and 15th Street below Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill.

“Coasting Out of Doors,” an 1857 magazine engraving of a Winslow Homer drawing.

“Coasting Out of Doors,” an 1857 magazine engraving of a Winslow Homer drawing.

Early sleds couldn’t be steered or braked except by dragging the feet. The combination of speed with a variety of stationary and moving obstructions—pedestrians, curbs, utility poles, other sleds—made for plenty of accidents, most happily not serious. But being thrown from his clipper head-first down Maple View Place in December 1890 left little Claude Allen wishing his two front teeth back for Christmas. The number of crashes plummeted when the police forbade further coasting on Good Hope Hill and Asylum Hill in 1895.

Asylum Hill was the popular name for the long slope from the main gate of Saint Elizabeths Hospital to the doorstep of Anacostia, along the road now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It was the main drag through the aptly named Hillsdale and one of that neighborhood’s sweetest sledding spots. It was the collision of two sleds here that was responsible for police closing the street to coasting. But Hillsdale children had alternative runs along the entire Stickfoot Branch valley through which Sheridan Road snaked. In the 1930s, Louise and Henry Sayles sailed down the slope behind their parents’ home on Sheridan near MLK, where generations of kids had joyfully preceded them.

Looking downhill at a snowless Nichols Avenue in Hillsdale, 1903.  Library of Congress.

Looking downhill at a snowless Nichols Avenue in Hillsdale, 1903. Library of Congress.

At least one late-nineteenth-century Hillsdale sled has survived its wear and tear and the passage of years. Until a few months ago, in an attic on Stanton Road—among jars, kerosene lamps, a saddle, luggage and hats dating from the 1890s to the 1930s—sat a dusty 1880s-vintage clipper, likely built in New England. A quick clean-up revealed the stenciled image of a thrush on its faded red paint, and the name of the original owner, Frank Williams, hand-lettered on the underside. Of nearly all-wood construction, just a handful of nails secure the runners, and four screws fasten the single-plank deck. Two steel rods bent around the pine runners provided the biting edge. A frayed hemp rope, mended with cotton cord, remains to tug the sled uphill once more, and it served too as a handle for its riders while shooshing down.

sleds

The sled was a second-hand toy, as the Stanton Road house and its attic treasures had belonged to the family of Annie D. and Edward E. Taliaferro (pronounced “Toliver”), who built the frame building about 1887 and resided there until the 1930s. The Taliaferros were Virginians and had probably grown up enslaved. In the mid 1880s they moved from Loudoun County with their five children, born between 1872 and 1883. The kids were the right ages to have enjoyed a sled of this vintage. It was likely put away for good when the youngest, Olivia, outgrew it in the late 1890s, explaining why this “Rosebud” was tucked into their attic’s farthest corner for some distant day.