Synopsis of Alexander R. Shepherd Biography

Alexander Robey Shepherd photoThe biography of Gov. Alexander R. Shepherd (1835-1902) of the District of Columbia tells the story of a self-made man who came of age in the Civil War, made a fortune in the plumbing and gas-fitting business in the decade that followed, and led the fight to establish the physical infrastructure of the nation's capital when powerful voices were calling for relocation of the capital to the Mississippi Valley, closer to the center of the expanding country. As "czar" of the Board of Public Works during the Territorial Government period from 1871-1874, Shepherd drove a public works program that for the first time put flesh on the bones of the Pierre L'Enfant map of the District by level-grading and paving the streets, installing a comprehensive sewage system, planting 64,000 trees, and managing to spend three times the authorized budget of $6 million.

Shepherd's prodigious activity triggered two major congressional investigations, the second of which (1874) brought an end to the Territorial Government and made Shepherd once again a private citizen. Having lost his fortune as a result of the Crash of 1873 and distractions from public office, Shepherd declared bankruptcy in 1876 but was able to secure financing for a major silver-mining project in Mexico, where he spent the final 22 years of his life. He never did acquire the riches he had assumed would result.

Shepherd was the dominant figure in Washington, D.C. affairs at a critical period in the city's history and development. Major issues – race, regionalism, party affiliation, urban development – all played out on the local stage but with a national audience because of Congress' ultimate role in the city's affairs, and Shepherd was at the center. Shepherd achieved in three years what it took Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman 20 years to accomplish in rebuilding Paris, but his reputation has been marred by questions about his methods and – in a race-conscious city – his views on race.

Shepherd's life is both a Washington story and a national story. It is being told for the first time in this biography.

Website by Diana O'Neil, updated 01/20/2014