Washington, D.C., trip leaves kids tired but happy

April 16, 2004|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

As we were planning a spring trip to the Smithsonian, my son looked up from the book he was studying and asked, "Mommy, why do they call it Washington, D.C.?" I explained that the letters stand for District of Columbia.

"OK, well, what's the significance of Columbia?"

I couldn't answer that question, so we tried to find out on the many Washington, D.C., tourism sites available on the Web.

No luck.

Tim McDonough with the American Council on Education in Washington recommended that I contact a former professor of his, Ronald M. Johnson.

The naming of the federal district came about as a way of honoring the Columbian legacy, says Johnson, a professor of history at Georgetown University.


The capital city received its name following the Residence Act of 1791, which established the permanent seat of the U.S. government. In 1791, when the legislation passed Congress, Americans had begun to identify with the original Columbus trip of 1492, Johnson says.

"During the early national period, images of America as a Greek-like goddess (or, alternately, an American Indian princess) called Columbia, were the subject of painters and sculptors," Johnson explains.

The word Columbia was associated with the sense of something new, just discovered, the beginning, which made it very popular in the early decades of the United States, Johnson says.

Armed with that information, we were ready for our trip.

We left around 8:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday when the kids were off school. Our plan was to miss work traffic on Interstate 270. We missed most of the traffic, but it was still heavy on the two-lane stretch below Frederick, Md.

We took the Metro from Shady Grove to Union Station. It cost $2.20 per person each way, which is the non-rush hour rate. We paid $3.25 to park in the parking deck.

We were going to take a tour of the Capitol, but the only tickets available by the time we arrived were for a 3:30 p.m. tour. We wanted to be headed home by that time.

Guided tours of the Capitol building are free and are given from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visitors obtain free tickets for guided tours on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk. Ticket distribution begins at 9 a.m. For information, go to on the Web.

We decided to head over to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur exhibit and the Hope diamond.

While the children were fascinated by the dinosaurs, we spent most of the morning in the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals where galleries are devoted to the science of crystals, mining, the moon, meteorites and the solar system. For information, go to on the Web.

We had lunch at the National Gallery of Art. The sandwiches were large enough to share. We spent about $20 - not bad for a family of four.

In the afternoon, we toured the National Air and Space Museum. My son had just finished a book about the Wright Brothers, so he really appreciated that exhibit. For information, go to

We were back on the Metro by 3 p.m. and home by 5 with tired but happy kids. Two museums were enough for one day.

Professor Johnson says children also enjoy the National Museum of American History. We'll do that another day.

P.S. - There are two ways to spell capital/capitol. Capitol with an "o" only refers to a building, such as the ones where Congress or state legislatures meet. Capital with an "a" is used for all other forms of the word, such as "the capital city," "a capital letter," "capital punishment," "capital stock," etc.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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