About the Biography
- What makes Alexander Shepherd more than a local historical figure?
Shepherd made his mark in Washington at a crucial time after the Civil War, when for the first time the nation needed and wanted a national capital to be proud of. Shepherd's achievement in building Washington's infrastructure against all odds is an American success story.
- How would you characterize Shepherd's achievements in Washington?
I like to say that Alexander Shepherd put flesh on the bones of the Pierre L'Enfant plan for Washington, which was mostly lines on a map as late as 1870. By constructing the sewers, grading the roads and paving them, planting the trees and putting in the gas lights, Shepherd made it possible for L'Enfant's original vision for the city to become a reality.
- Why did Shepherd move to Mexico?
Shepherd moved his family to a remote silver-mining region in Copper Canyon in hope of striking it rich after he lost his fortune in the crash of 1873, and after Congress cancelled the Territorial Government that had been Shepherd's vehicle for undertaking public improvements in Washington. He built a modern silver-mining operation that included an iron bridge and a three-mile aqueduct that still provides water for the town. Power generated by the aqueduct made Batopilas the second city in Mexico (after Mexico City) to have electric lights.
- Did he ever return to Washington?
Shepherd made only two trips to Washington in the final 22 years of his life in Mexico, one of which followed a near-fatal mine accident. Shepherd no doubt wanted to return to the city of his birth, but he was so determined to return in financial triumph – which didn't happen, by the way – that he remained in voluntary exile until his death in 1902.
- What attracted you to the subject?
When I started my research, I lived in Shepherd Park (a Washington neighborhood north of Walter Reed Hospital), about 200 yards from the site of Bleak House, Shepherd's out-of-town residence. I knew something about Shepherd's activities and decided that even if a previous biography had been published, I would write a better one. Imagine my amazement when I realized that until this time there has never been a biography of this remarkable man.
- What has been the most difficult part of your research?
To a great extent, Alexander Shepherd was what he did. The relative shortage of personal letters and diaries makes it hard to tease out inner tensions and conflicts. Because Shepherd was in the public eye in Washington and therefore often in the news, the public record has a substantial archive on which to draw. His activities in Mexico are discussed in the annual reports of his mining company, although not all are available; family diaries add an important dimension.
- Have you seen Shepherd's base in Mexico?
A good friend, fluent in Spanish, and I spent a fascinating week in April 2011 in Batopilas, Chihuahua State, the remote village in Mexico's Copper Canyon where Shepherd built his mining operation. (We were fortunate to avoid any encounters with the local drug industry). I was delighted to learn that the Shepherd legacy is alive and well in Batopilas and that local leaders still hope to attract tourists to the town for that reason.
- What is the status of the biography?
The biography has now been published by Ohio University Press, supported by a grant from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. Former D.C. Mayor Tony Williams wrote the Foreword. The book can be ordered from Amazon and is available in bookstores. It's great to see it completed so many years after I began my research. The paperback version has gone into a second printing.