Upstream from Georgetown on the Virginia side of the Potomac stand wooded cliffs bearing scars from the past. The scars are all that remain of the once flourishing bluestone quarries. The stone in these cliffs is actually gneiss, a coarse-grained rock like granite, but it is called bluestone from its blue-gray color. It served as building material for many of Washington’s most important structures.”
Charles B. Grunwell penned these words in 1966 for the Washington Star Sunday Magazine, and they hold the key to the mystery of the Potomac’s submerged iron boilers. Grunwell had firsthand knowledge of the cliffs and their scars—the broken and pocked rock, the shoreline littered with docking rings. His grandfather, Gilbert Vanderwerken, founded the Potomac Blue Stone Co. about the time of the Civil War. As a child during the 1890s, Grunwell watched stonecutters blast and chisel the rock, then load it onto scows that were pushed down the river by tugboat.
“The first step was to blast the rock out of the cliff. To do this, a scow with a steam boiler aboard anchored beside the river bank. From it a lengthy steam pipe extended to a drill hammer,” wrote Grunwell. “When the hole was drilled, the overseer filled it with blasting powder. He next inserted a cap into the end of the last charge and attached a fuse. Shouting at the top of his voice, “Fire in the hole!’ he lit the fuse and ran for cover, with all the workmen following him. The blast that shortly followed shook the earth and was heard for miles around. Hundreds of tons of rock were torn from the cliff and hurled rumbling down into the quarry yard.”
Georgetown University’s Healy Hall, St. Patrick’s Church, the Hains Point sea wall, and St. Elizabeths Hospital were all built with Potomac bluestone, and rubble from the blasts was hauled to a stone crusher on Georgetown’s waterfront, pulverized, and used as the foundation for local roads.
By the turn of the 20th century, the cutters had dynamited the cliffs back from the river, and it was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to quarry rock from the Virginia palisades. So, in 1905, after the death of Vanderwerken, his daughters sold the Potomac Blue Stone Co. to the Columbia Sand and Gravel Company.
It was around this time that the quarries sprouted a makeshift village. Two dozen Italian and Sicilian quarrymen, all recent immigrants, lived in tar-paper shacks on the cliffs above the stone yards. This work force was supplemented by as many as 100 black quarrymen. Most of the African-Americans were locals, though seasonal laborers came from as far away as Westmoreland County, Va.
The squatting community became known as Little Italy or Little Sicily. It had an unofficial mayor—Michele Dimeglio—a little store run by Ross Matoli, and postal service.
It also had as much violence and melodrama as a Western mining town. In 1929, stonecutter Mike Sunday fired a load of buckshot into Dimeglio’s head. Dimeglio survived, but didn’t press charges. Three years later Sunday tried to murder Carl Conduci. He shot Conduci in the legs, crippling him. As Sunday reloaded, a man identified as “old colored Ed,” in Eleanor Lee Templeman’s book Arlington Heritage, wrestled the gun from Sunday, saving Conduci’s life. As a blood-drenched Conduci was being carried up the ravine to the hospital, Sunday made his escape to New York.
Smoot Stone and Gravel Co. bought the bluestone quarries in 1931, but new management did not check the mayhem. In 1936, upon discovering that $14—nearly a week’s wages—had been stolen from his shack, Philip Matoli let it be known that he suspected Tex (“a giant Negro,” notes Templeman). Tex heard the allegation and threatened to kill Matoli. The next day, when they saw each other on the trail, Tex picked up a club and advanced on Phil. “As Tex came on, Phil shot him in the leg to try and stop him, but the enraged and bleeding Negro continued coming, swearing to kill. Phil’s final warning was unheeded and he shot again, this time fatally,” writes Templeman. At least that’s the story a jury bought, for Matoli was released upon a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Little Italy calmed down when Smoot ceased quarry operations in 1938. The company abandoned its equipment, leaving the steam boilers for the river. Most of the quarrymen with families gradually moved away, but three old cutters—Tex’s killer Philip Matoli and the Conduci brothers, Guiseppe (Josh) and Carmelo (Carl)—remained behind. Smoot allowed them to stay on the land, charging them a token rent of 10 cents a month. By 1948, Smoot had dispensed with that formality.
The three bachelors fished for river herring and tilled a garden that provided most of their food. They spent their “pensh”—social security and county welfare—on staples and their one luxury: pure olive oil. Sometimes they had enough left over for a bottle of wine.
The Conduci brothers planted thousands of bulbs along the cliffs and sold the flowers to the residents of the expensive new homes in nearby Riverside Estates. Carl, who was crippled and had to haul himself around by a complex system of ropes, would load a rickety wagon full of flowers. Using more ropes, he and Josh hauled the wagon up the ravine.
The days of vino e rose came to an end with the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Ignoring their pleas to remain, the National Park Service forced Matoli and the Conducis to vacate the land in January 1957. Josh, 72, and Carl, 70, dug up their bulbs before the bulldozers could and gave them to friends. Matoli, 80, went to live with the McNutts, who owned a farm near Little Italy on Arlington’s North Quebec Street. Charlie Miller—the son of “Mayor” Dimeglio, who had died in 1951—took in the Conducis.
For being the first reader to correctly identify the remains of Little Italy, John Hugh McLeod III wins a T-shirt. And a T-shirt also goes to Arlingtonian Eric Dobson, who invented the best explanation for the submerged boilers: “D.C. citizens have been hiding [the boilers] as a place to send Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. It gives new meaning to the expression, “We are going to send him up the river for good.’ ”
Well, Eric, as the Italians would say, se non è vero è ben trovato—if it’s not true, it should be.