Along the western edge of Washington DC, parallel to the Potomac River, runs the historic C&O shipping canal. Stop at Fletcher’s Boathouse, just north of Georgetown, and you can rent kayaks or canoes for a relaxing time on the water – or just enjoy the nice biking/jogging path that accompanies the canal. The water in the C&O is calm and peaceful, you can traverse it without having to battle the strong currents and wild turbulence of the mighty Potomac just a few hundred feet away.
Built in the mid-1800’s, the C&O (which stands for Chesapeake and Ohio) was used to transport much needed goods from northern Maryland and Pennsylvania into Washington D.C. Initially intended to go all the way to Pittsburgh, the C&O canal was only completed up to Cumberland, Maryland – still an impressive 184 miles in total length.
The primary freight that was shipped via the C&O was coal from the Allegheny Mountains, but the canal was also used for transporting building materials (lumber, paving stones, sand and gravel) and foodstuff (pork, wheat, corn, oats – and even whiskey). This was an alternative to shipping goods via railroad – and for a time before it closed, the canal was actually owned by the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad Company. The canal was a vital part of Washington DC’s rapid growth following the civil war, and all the way into the early 1920’s.
Initially, the C&O canal was built with 74 locks, used to keep the flow of water stable and to raise and lower barges from one section to the next. The very last of these locks emptied the C&O canal into the Potomac river; it was there, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington DC, that all the freight was unloaded from the barges and distributed throughout the city.
There really was never any particular name for this last lock which separated the canal from the river, but in 1942 (18 years after the canal was closed to shipping and the C&O Canal Company went into receivership) a restaurant opened directly across the street – and the restaurant was named “The Water Gate Inn”.
Another 18 years went by. In 1960, The Water Gate Inn closed its doors and sold out to an Italian real estate developer, Società Generale Immobiliare (known simply as “SGI”). SGI didn’t just buy out the restaurant – they purchased the entire ten acres of land that was owned by the remaining vestiges of the C&O Canal Company. SGI outlined their plans for a major real estate development, and named the proposed building complex after the little restaurant that had been on the corner of the property; thus was born “The Watergate”.
Right from the start, SGI had grand plans and a big budget for The Watergate. It was to be a mixed use complex of five buildings – with shopping, office space, apartments, medical and dental, and hotel all integrated into one “city within a city, providing so many amenities that residents would not need to leave”.
As they were an Italian firm, SGI chose the renowned architect Luigi Moretti, of the University of Rome, to design The Watergate complex. Mr. Moretti did a beautiful job; the curved structure of the main building provides an excellent view of the Potomac river from almost all the dwelling units. To this day, it is still one of the most valuable and desirable real estate developments in Washington D.C.
However, when you mention the name “Watergate” around the world, most people don’t think about the complex of buildings. What first comes to mind is the scandal that occurred there in 1972, when high level officials in the Nixon administration broke in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and then tried to cover up their involvement. A memorable scandal it was, leading to the resignation of president Richard Nixon.
Indeed, the suffix “-gate” attached to any word has come to signify a scandal with an associated cover-up. Over the subsequent years, we’ve endured extensive press coverage of Climategate, Emailgate, Irangate/Contragate, Nannygate, Troopergate, and of course the now infamous Deflategate.
Interestingly, there’s one major scandal and associated cover-up that has not yet been canonized with the “-gate” suffix in the press, and I really think that’s a shame. This scandal was huge, with far reaching ramifications. Although the scandalous behavior has been going on for well over a hundred years, and everyone has always known about it, it’s only been discussed openly in the press for the past 20 years or so. Once the story became “public”, the cover-up and outright denial reached all the way to the top of one of the largest organizations on the planet. The subsequent lawsuits have resulted in payoffs to many of the victims, and the total amount paid out has reached into the billions of dollars.
I’m speaking, of course, about the inexcusable child abuse and sexual assaults committed by members of the Catholic clergy.
Why is it such a shame that no one has come up with a good “-gate” name for the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up?
Because ironically, SGI – Società Generale Immobiliare – the Italian firm that purchased the land and developed the Watergate complex – was financed by The Vatican.