The nation’s capital is jam-packed with monuments, historic sites and other sightseeing destinations, but it also happens to be an excellent place for urban exploration. Keep reading to learn about the 10 best abandoned places in DC that you won’t see mentioned in the tour guides.
Interested in venturing outside DC? Here are a few guides to surrounding states that will be helpful in your explorations outside of the wonderful abandoned places in DC:
- Finding the 10 Best Abandoned Places in New York In 2021
- Our Choices For The 10 Best Abandoned Places In Pennsylvania
- The 10 Best Abandoned Places In Maryland For 2021 And Beyond
- Finding the 10 Best Abandoned Places in Virginia In 2021
The Best Abandoned Places in DC
Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle
Buried in the thick undergrowth of Glover-Archbold park near Georgetown University lies a rusting monolith that once ferried D.C. residents across the city. Emerging from a dense canopy of trees and disappearing again in just a few hundred feet, the steel pratt-truss bridge belonged to the Foundry Branch Trestle, which was part of a streetcar line connecting the Georgetown neighborhood to Glen Echo, Maryland.
The line opened in 1896 and saw its final trolley in January 1960. At that point, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) took ownership of the defunct bridge, which has since fallen into a state of serious disrepair.
In 2008, the D.C. Preservation League issued a warning related to the bridge’s structural integrity, warning that it was at risk of collapsing without the aid of an improvised cable system. The bridge’s 120-year-old timbers are riddled with rot, and trees and shrubs have grown up through its brittle skeleton.
In 2014, the National Park Service and WMATA partnered on a project to stabilize the trestle and install a covered walkway beneath it to protect visitors from falling debris, but the historic infrastructure remains in imminent danger of collapse if more aggressive efforts are not taken to preserve it. If you visit the site when looking for abandoned places in DC, limit your exploration to ground level, as the ruins are not stable enough to safely climb.
If you’ve ever visited Washington’s Rock Creek Park, you may have seen massive piles of builder’s stone stashed behind an old maintenance shed. You may have even heard the unbelievable rumor that the stone was harvested from the U.S. Capitol Building but thought it sounded too farfetched to be true—but you’d be wrong.
When the Capitol underwent major renovations in 1958, the architect managing the project opted to remove hundreds of the original marble and sandstone blocks from the building, which dated back to the end of the 18th century. Some blocks were nondescript, while others featured intricate carvings and other architectural features.
Because the law prevented the stones from being sold or destroyed, the contractors working on the renovations opted to surreptitiously move them to Rock Creek Park, where they were ultimately abandoned. The rows of piles—some of which are as tall as 20 feet—have since accumulated dirt and moss and have become obscured by the surrounding woods, but a closer look at each pile inevitably reveals a striking detail, such as a builder’s mark or an artistically-formed cornice.
The pile of stones has gone undisturbed for more than half a century, with no agency officially responsible for maintaining it and no regulations preventing the public from accessing the site. To visit the stone piles, follow the unmarked trail southeast from the Rock Creek Stables for about 200 yards until you reach the ghostly unofficial monuments hidden in the woods, one of the most historical abandoned places in DC.
Under the roadway near Washington’s Dupont Circle, a system of abandoned streetcar tunnels snakes through the city. Built in 1949, the Dupont Circle station stood out as the only station in the D.C. transit system to be located underground. Little did they know it would become one of the most interesting abandoned places in DC.
Little more than a decade later, the station went dormant when the streetcar system was replaced by traditional bus service in 1962, with the Metro train network soon to follow. The tunnels were designated as a nuclear fallout shelter during the 1960s, but with the warming of U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1970s, that use was also discontinued and the tunnels were sealed.
A private developer purchased the tunnel property from the city in 1995 to create Dupont Down Under, a streetcar-themed food court situated on the decommissioned tracks. The gloomy, windowless atmosphere and poor ventilation didn’t attract much business, and vendors had a difficult time finding employees willing to work in the dreary conditions. Within a few months, the food court shut down and the tunnels became vacant once more.
In late 2016, the tunnels found new life as a public art space, with 75,000 square feet dedicated to installations by local artists, many of whom have incorporated light and sound to complement the tunnels’ unique acoustics. The graffiti splashed across the concrete walls adds to the creative ambience, and the tunnels retain their gritty, urban feel thanks to the broken glass, pieces of rusty metal and other detritus left behind by previous uses.
Guided tours and other events are available through Dupont Underground, the volunteer-based community arts organization behind the site’s ongoing transformation from just another example of abandoned places in DC into a revitalized mecca for art and culture.
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St. Elizabeths Hospital
In 1855, one of the country’s first psychiatric hospitals opened in southeast Washington, D.C. under the moniker “Government Hospital for the Insane.”
During the Civil War, portions of the facility were repurposed as general hospitals for sick and wounded sailors and soldiers, and the still-incomplete east wing of the hospital was temporarily renamed St. Elizabeth’s Army Medical Hospital to distinguish it from the psychiatric facility still operating in the west wing.
After the war ended, the hospital returned to its original purpose as a mental health treatment facility, although it briefly served as a housing space for animals that had been brought into the country on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution for inclusion at the National Zoo, which had not yet been completed at the time. Congress officially changed the hospital’s name to St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1916 and transferred its oversight to the Department of the Interior.
At the hospital’s peak, more than 4,000 employees treated up to 8,000 patients at any given time. In 1940, the Federal Security Agency took over its operations, and it was during this time that St. Elizabeths became involved in a covert government program testing the effectiveness of “truth serums,” pharmaceuticals and other psychological techniques during prisoner-of-war interrogations.
The experiments focused primarily on the use of cannabis, although it is unclear whether participants were informed government recruits or unwitting existing patients. The studies ultimately concluded that marijuana was likely not a candidate for broad use during interrogations.
As the trend toward deinstitutionalization in the 1960s sent many patients to outpatient treatment facilities and community-based health centers instead of inpatient hospitals, the population (and funding) at St. Elizabeths declined sharply. By 1987, the federal government determined that it was no longer feasible to maintain the massive facility and transferred operation of the east side of campus to the District of Columbia.
Less than two decades later, the hospital’s census had dropped below 900 patients, and staff were constantly forced to contend with medication shortages and malfunctioning equipment, including a weeks-long outage of the HVAC system. In 2002, all remaining patients on the west side of the campus were moved to other facilities.
Today, a few buildings on the old campus remain in use, but most have been abandoned and neglected. The hospital was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Most Endangered Places in 2002, and though some redevelopment has since occurred—including construction of the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena, home to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and NBA farm team Capital City Go-Go—the majority of the site has simply fallen to the wayside.
Although some of the historic buildings are relatively easy to find, access to those on the abandoned western campus is restricted.
McMillan Sand Filtration Site
Competed in 1905, the McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Plant represented a milestone in public health infrastructure in the District of Columbia. Using sand instead of chemicals to purify water, the plant resulted in the near-elimination of typhoid and other water-borne diseases in the city.
The 25-acre facility featured an above-ground structure with multiple regulator houses, sand towers and sand washers, as well as a public promenade that was permanently closed during World War II to prevent potential sabotage of the city’s water supply. Underground, 20 one-acre cells held the sand filters that slowly purified water drawn from the Potomac River via the Washington Aqueduct.
The filtration technology became obsolete near the end of the 20th century, and a new rapid sand filtration plant was built nearby in 1985, resulting in the closure of the original McMillan facility. The Army Corps of Engineers transferred the property to the General Services Administration, which determined the site should be sold for mixed-use development instead of being preserved as green space as recommended by the McMillan Park Committee and the National Capital Planning Commission.
Despite this determination, the property sat vacant and unused for decades. The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board named McMillan Park a Historic Landmark in 1991 and nominated it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. It was added to the latter’s list of “Most Endangered Places” in both 2000 and 2005. In recent years, however, the city government resumed pursuit of the site’s redevelopment, putting forth a proposal to allow housing, retail and office space to be built on the historic site.
Since 2016, the city has been engaged in multiple court battles with community activist group Friends of McMillan Park, which has so far managed to forestall any demolition or other activity on the abandoned property.
Columbian Cannon Foundry Ruins
This recently-discovered site west of Georgetown University includes the ruins of a long-forgotten cannon factory that once provided critical munitions to the young United States.
The foundry was launched in 1800 by British immigrant Henry Foxall, who selected the site along the Potomac to take advantage of the river’s accessibility for freight shipments as well as the power it generated through the factory’s water wheels. The location also provided several acres of open space ideal for testing completed cannons before sending them onto the battlefield.
The foundry saw booming business in its early years, producing roughly 10,000 cannons as well as tons of artillery. Using innovative techniques from his British homeland, Foxall forged his weapons using solid iron tubes and highly precise machinery, and the quality of his product has been partially credited for the U.S. victory against the British during the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie.
The British very nearly achieved their revenge the following year, when the Redcoat Army deliberately targeted the Foundry and set it ablaze. A rare late-summer rainstorm extinguished the fire and saved the facility, and believing it to be a sign from God, Foxall sold the factory and used the proceeds to build Foundry Methodist Church.
The Foundry continued operating under new owner John Mason, but by the middle of the 19th century, business had largely dried up. Little is known about when the factory ultimately shut down for good, but its memory seemed lost to history until the ruins of its stone walls were recently unearthed along what is now the Capital Crescent bike trail.
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Memorial Bridge Drawbridge Control Room
Though it ceased functioning as a drawbridge a half-century ago, remnants of this period in the Arlington Memorial Bridge’s history are still visible beneath the structure’s center section. Hanging from the steel are two small offices with grate-covered windows, inside of which still sits the mechanism once used to raise and lower the middle span to accommodate marine traffic.
The bridge was the creation of storied New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, which would go on to design the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The concrete and granite structure was inspired by the lines of ancient Roman aqueducts, and it used 4 million pounds of iron to provide a counterweight for the drawbridge component.
The drawbridge ceased operating in 1961, when construction of the solid concrete Theodore Roosevelt Bridge less than a half-mile upriver rendered this function unnecessary. It took until 1976 for the Memorial Bridge’s leaves to be sealed and the control rooms to be permanently abandoned. Today, most D.C. residents are unaware that the bridge ever moved and likely don’t notice the tiny chambers on its underside.
If you’re interested in getting a closer look at the defunct control rooms, the best vantage point is via kayak or another small watercraft.
United Brick Corporation Brickyard
Tucked away in a remote corner of the National Arboretum are the remains of the once-thriving United Brick Corporation factory, which opened in 1909.
At the turn of the 20th century, the labor-intensive process of producing and transporting bricks meant that most major cities had dozens, if not hundreds of brickyards. The United Brick Corporation was one of nearly 100 similar facilities scattered throughout the D.C. metro area. It relied on clay dredged from the nearby Anacostia River to form its product, which was then fired in massive kilns and allowed to cool in a process that took nearly a week to complete.
When new owners took over the yard in 1930, the facility was expanded to include the round, beehive-shaped kilns that remain on the property today. Business grew rapidly, propelling it to the top tier of brickyards in the region, and its bricks were used in the construction of the New Executive Office Building, the Court of Claims, the National Building Museum and the National Cathedral, as well as multiple housing developments and other structures. At its peak in the mid-1960s, United Brick Corporation produced roughly 145,000 bricks per day at the factory.
Soon after that, the rapid pace of technology rendered the plant obsolete, and it shut down in 1972. The property was annexed by the National Arboretum and the old facility was included on the National Register of Historic Places, but no funding was ever allocated to properly preserve the brickyard, and it eventually fell into disrepair, hidden behind a thick wall of overgrowth and fencing.
C&O Boat Elevator
Officially known as the C&O Canal Incline Plane, this once-essential piece of public infrastructure opened in 1875. At the time, the boat elevator was on the cutting edge of engineering, earning one of two spots highlighting examples of American innovation at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris.
The elevator was designed to improve efficiency on the C&O canal system, giving boats an opportunity to get around congestion at the Collector’s Office in Georgetown to reach their destinations further down the Potomac. Within a few years, shipping trends swung heavily toward the railroads, causing a significant decline in river traffic that essentially eliminated the reason for the boat elevator’s existence.
However, its ultimate demise was the result of natural causes: in 1889, a flood destroyed the elevator and severely damaged much of the C&O canal system, sending the company into bankruptcy.
Today, the remains of the once-vaunted boat elevator consist mostly of a stone platform on the towpath marked with a small plaque. The site is easily accessible to the public at the southwest corner of the Georgetown Distributing Reservoir, where scattered chunks of stone can be seen in the underbrush all the way to the shoreline in one of the best abandoned places in DC.
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Washington Aqueduct Emergency Pumping Station
Nearly a century ago, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant in northwest Washington, D.C. To their surprise, the facility functioned even better than they expected, forcing them to come up with a use for the additional water it produced. Their solution was to send it downhill through massive pipes to a hydroelectric plant, where the water was channeled through generators to produce electricity for the neighborhood.
As the city grew over the subsequent decades, increased demand for water meant that less and less was being sent to the hydroelectric plant. During an extended drought in the summer of 1966, the supply of water to the aqueduct almost completely disappeared, and the threat of having to impose unpopular public water restrictions loomed over city officials.
The Army Corps once again came to the rescue, reverse-engineering the hydroelectric power plant to pump water from downriver toward Dalecarlia. The drought ended before the solution was implemented, although the Corps went ahead with the project in case of future emergencies. The city also began working on a long-term fix in the form of a new reservoir system, and once it was completed, the emergency pumping station created by the Corps of Engineers was no longer needed.
The facility’s remains include a crumbling concrete deck along the Potomac, where it is used primarily by local anglers, although it remains under the Army Corps of Engineers’ purview. To visit the defunct pumping station, take the C&O Canal towpath north from Georgetown until you see an access road and spillway to your left. If you reach the Maryland border, you’ve gone too far.
Our Final Thoughts on Abandoned Places in DC
With many abandoned sites across the United States waiting to be explored, take time to check out these famous abandoned places in DC. If you live in the area, or plan to travel here soon, these 10 sites deserve your attention. The unique culture and history of the nation’s capital make it a must-see for any urban explorer. Adventure awaits!
Those who are into urban exploration in the Washington DC area, and wanting to explore abandoned places in DC, should get comfortable with the District of Columbia’s trespassing laws. Luckily, in the DC area, the laws are easy to understand and are pretty cut and dry.
For these cases, you should familiarize yourself with x. For more about obtaining permission to explore abandoned places in DC, check out our guide Explore Abandoned Buildings: How To Get Permission.