Alexander R. Shepherd. Photo: Library of Congress

Alexander R. Shepherd: D.C.'s Unappreciated Visionary

November 9, 2004
On November 9, 2005, Capitol Hill historian Nelson Rimensnyder presented a lecture on Aleander Shepherd, the legendary 19th century territorial governor who transformed Washington, D.C., into a modern city.

As Rimensnyder noted, as late as 1870 Washington remained an embarrassing backwater marked by mud streets, open sewers and wandering livestock, lending credibility to the serious movement then underway to have the national capital moved to St. Louis. More than any other individual, Shepherd changed that with a massive effort to grade and pave streets, improve parks, and install new lighting, water and sanitation systems. But by plunging forward with this effort without the expected level of financial support from Congress, he also left the city bankrupt and incurred the derision of partisan press lords, who dubbed him Boss Shepherd.

Rimensnyder contended that Shepherd has been unjustly maligned and was in reality an urban visionary who also worked to change the social landscape as an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and racial equality.

Rimensnyder has been a student of DC history and a champion of DC home rule since his high school days in Pennsylvania, where he lobbied his state legislators to approve the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution giving District residents the right to vote for President. Later, working at the Library of Congress (1970-1975) and then as director of research for the U.S. House Committee on the District of Columbia (1975-1992), he compiled what he describes as “the only existing comprehensive archive on the history of the complex DC-Federal relationship.” He has been intensively involved in local historic preservation efforts and has served on the boards of the Historical Society of Washington, DC and the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia.

Past Lectures