On April 21, 1789, George Washington arrived in Trenton, New Jersey and was feted at a public dinner at Samuel Henry`s City Tavern. In response to the entreaties of his countrymen, he was on his way from his beloved farm at Mount Vernon to New York City, where he was shortly to be inaugurated as the President of the newly-formed United States of America.
On that same day, at a meeting in Easton, Talbot County, Maryland, the Grand Lodge of Maryland met to consider the petition of “a number of respectable brethren from George Town on the Patowmack River.” The petition read in part:
“Being deeply impressed with a sense of the duties incumbent on us as members of that Ancient and Honorable society, we have held several meetings, wherein, having taken into our serious consideration the low state of Freemasonry in the town, and being well assured that we could be happy instruments of advancing and supporting an institution so well calculated to disseminate friendship and Brotherly Love, we hereby petition to charter a Lodge on the Pawtomack river.”
The Grand Lodge of Maryland saw fit to grant this charter thus establishing Lodge No. 9 of Maryland as the first chartered lodge in the area now called the District of Columbia.
A brief reminder of the state of our Nation at that time: in May of 1789, the Congress of the United States had met for its first session in New York. Five days before Lodge No. 9 was chartered, on April 16th, George Washington had crossed the Potomac River from Alexandria to Georgetown on his journey to New York to be inaugurated first President of the United States. At the time of Lodge No. 9’s chartering there was no President of the United States; no City of Washington; and no District of Columbia. The only hint of what our grand Federal City would eventually become was contained in the simple parchment map laid out by Brother Pierre L’Enfant, a frequent visitor to the Lodge.
In 1790, the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River was officially chosen by Congress to be the site of our Nation’s Capitol. Using L’Enfant’s plan, Masons began laying the foundation of our country’s symbolic home and it was Potomac Lodge that literally paved the way. On October 20, 1792, members of Potomac marched from Georgetown to the expanse that was then the City of Washington. There, at the exact center of the D.C. map, in due Masonic form, they laid the cornerstone of the White House. The executive mansion was designed by Brother James Hoban, who also oversaw the construction carried out by his fellow Freemasons.
The following year, in 1793, a similar ceremony was held, one that captured the imagination of a nation and continues to hold a special significance to all members of Potomac. It was the laying of the cornerstone of the people’s house, the United States Capitol. It was presided over by none other than our Brother and first President, George Washington.
The day was September 18, 1793. That morning, Potomac Lodge received members from Lodge No. 22 of Alexandria, Virginia as well as their Master, President Washington. After a long march through from Georgetown, through the wide expanse of woods, streams and swamps that made up the city at the time, the procession stopped at the “President’s Palace) and was joined by the newly formed Lodge No. 15 (now Federal Lodge No. 1). After a reception they all proceeded to Capitol Hill and laid the cornerstone of the Capitol of the United States. The gavel President Washington used in the ceremony was bestowed to Potomac Lodge No. 5 and has been in our safe custody ever since. It is currently on display at the U.S. Capitol’s Visitors Center.
In 1792 and 1793, owing to the distances and difficulty of travel, Potomac Lodge granted dispensation to its members to hold meetings in Port Tobacco, Maryland and in the Federal City. These two new lodges were soon granted their own charters as No. 11 and No. 15. Regrettably, however, this had the adverse affect of depleting Lodge No. 9 of its own members and by 1794, we ceased meeting.
In October 1795, the brethren of Georgetown petitioned for a new charter, and Lodge No. 15 reciprocated the earlier kindness of Lodge No. 9 and endorsed the petition. The Grand Lodge of Maryland granted the charter under the name of Columbia Lodge No. 19, and its first meeting was held on Saturday, November 17, 1795.
Unfortunately, the Lodge minutes from April 21, 1789 to 1795 were burned in a Lodge fire, but it has been well authenticated that President Washington, President Thomas Jefferson, Marquis de LaFayette and Major Pierre L’Enfant have visited this Lodge which met at Suter’s Fountain Inn for several years after it was chartered.
Of interest to Georgetowners is the fact that John Suter, Jr., proprietor of historic Suter’s Fountain Inn, was Senior Warden of Maryland Lodge No. 9 in 1795; he never attained the station of Worshipful Master for reasons unknown.
By 1797, the small community of Georgetown was again in Masonic “darkness” and remained so until 1806, when in response to still another petition, the Grand Lodge of Maryland chartered Potomac Lodge No. 43 on November 11th. Since 1806, the Lodge has been in continuous existence.
It wasn’t uncommon for Lodges in the 18th century to fall into periods of inactivity. The itinerant character of travel and secrecy frequently made it difficult for Masons to meet. Whenever a Lodge was healthy enough to resume labor, it had to obtain a new charter. For these reasons, among others, the Grand Lodge of Maryland has affirmed that all iterations of Potomac, beginning with Lodge No. 9, then 19, and then 43 are accepted as being the same lodge with a single identity.
Finally, in 1811, the time had come to constitute a Grand Lodge for the District of Columbia. Valentine Reintzel, a celebrated Past Master of Potomac Lodge, and its various re-charterings, was chosen as the first Grand Master. The oldest Lodges currently active in the city were reorganized into this new Grand Lodge and given numbers reflective of the veteran stature. Thus Potomac Lodge No. 43 of Maryland became as it is today, Potomac Lodge No. 5 of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia.
Over the past few centuries, Potomac Lodge has frequently been called to participate in and sometimes preside over ceremonial events in the city. Because of our intimate history with the founding of the District of Columbia, we have continued to lay cornerstones for federal buildings and national memorials, many of which have been presided over by sitting U.S. Presidents. For a more detailed account of these events please see “The Gavel’s Travels.”
Potomac Lodge has not only added over 200 years to its own distinctive history, but has also been enriched by the roots of four other historic lodges through consolidation:
- Myron Parker Lodge No. 27 in 1974
- Joseph Milans Lodge No. 38 in 1995
- George Whiting Lodge No. 22 in 1999
- and Theodore Roosevelt Lodge No. 44 also in 1999
While Potomac Lodge has made its home in several buildings over the years, it has always held its meetings in Georgetown, and has been in its present location on Wisconsin Avenue since 1865. In 1963, a fire that originated in the hardware store downstairs destroyed the building.
It was a devastating loss and the structure had to be razed. Thankfully, most of our artifacts were saved. After reconstruction in 1965, the Lodge resumed its meetings above the hardware store where we continue to meet today.
The face and character of Georgetown changed not only gradually, but often drastically during the past 225 years of transition from a small colonial seaport town crowded with horses and carriages, to the bustling and much more crowded shopping district that it is today.
But one thing remains in common: the destination of many Masons is still to meet in the Lodge founded on the “shores of the Patowmack.”