One on One: Ghosts of DC

by Shilpi Paul

One on One: Ghosts of DC: Figure 1
Ghosts of DC’s Tom Cochran

In this edition of One on One, UrbanTurf talks with Tom Cochran, creator of Ghosts of DC, a website that digs up fascinating stories about the DC area’s buildings and inhabitants. Recent posts have investigated a one-room schoolhouse in Seneca, MD and explored the history of the building that currently houses the Kenyan Embassy.

By day, Cochran is the Chief Technology Officer for Atlantic Media (which explains his particularly slick website). On the weekends, he spends hours putting together 10 to 15 posts for the week. We chatted with Cochran about his site and some of the most interesting stories he’s researched.

Why did you decide to start Ghosts of DC?

Tom Cochran: I feel like this city doesn’t get the credit it deserves when it comes to history outside of the monuments, the White House and the Capitol. It’s a city of half a million people, but over the past 200 years, millions of people have lived here and their stories should be told.

Take me through the process of researching one particular building.

TC: I have access to ProQuest, which gives me access to the Washington Post. If I’m looking at a building, I’ll enter the address and see what comes up. The Library of Congress also has good archives, and I’ll do the same thing with Google Books. I’ll look through what comes up, and maybe it will mention a name, so I’ll then search on that name. It’ll start to build from that. Half the time it’s a complete dud, but half the time it’s a bizarre story that I couldn’t even make up.

One on One: Ghosts of DC: Figure 2
1851 map of DC. Courtesy of Ghosts of DC

What have been some of your most interesting stories?

TC: I wrote a post about some criminal who was running away [from the police], and an officer named Officer Sprinkle ran and tackled him. One of my readers said ‘I’d like to find out more about that guy,’ so I started digging into his past. It turned out he had a really fascinating background. He grew up in the Midwest, was in the Army, fought in the 1880’s, captured Geronimo, and escorted Geronimo to a POW camp in Florida. Then he moved to DC and became a cop. There are all sort of stories about him diffusing bombs, and he was on President Woodrow Wilson’s detail. This guy disappeared into history, and all of a sudden I’m unraveling all these fascinating untold stories about someone who was a micro-celebrity of the times.

Recently, I went to San Francisco to visit my sister, and I wanted to connect a post to San Francisco. It just so happened that the only person to escape from Alcatraz was born in Washington. It was so serendipitous.

One on One: Ghosts of DC: Figure 3
A color-ized Abe. Courtesy of Ghosts of DC.

What are people interested in? Any trends?

TC: Readers love maps. They love high resolution photos depicting life in DC in the past. If you can get that one super sharp photo, that post will blow up. There was a fascinating colorized photo of Abraham Lincoln that I found that was almost eerie, and it went crazy on Facebook.

Are there any particular neighborhoods you find fascinating?

TC: I would be remiss if I didn’t say Georgetown, but I think that is the easy answer. I want to know more about Anacostia. Also, the Southwest quadrant — it’s so depressing what they did with Southwest, basically bulldozed the entire quadrant and built up a planned community that was so horrendously ugly. There’s a story there, an experiment in complete urban renewal and ‘let’s build up this portion of the city based on the car.’

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This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/one_on_one_ghosts_of_dc/6045


  1. Ellen said at 8:29 pm on Wednesday September 19, 2012:
    I love Ghosts of DC. Tom, keep up the great work!
  1. Ghosts of DC said at 2:52 am on Thursday September 20, 2012:
    Thanks Ellen! I love writing it. --Tom

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