Rock Creek and Other Ginger Ales in Washington DC

The origins of major soft drink brands, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, are well known—they were the creations of late 19th century druggists searching for rejuvenating elixirs. The broader business of selling sparkling waters and flavored sparkling drinks goes back much further. Washington had a thriving sparkling beverage industry from its very early days. Though national brands dominated in the 20th century, there were many local producers before that, offering soda water, flavored drinks, and, especially, ginger ale, which was invariably seen as the true measure of a bottler's skill and quality. 

A 1927 bottle label for "ozonized" Rock Creek Pale Dry Ginger Ale (author's collection).

Since ancient times, naturally carbonated mineral waters have been prized as healthful tonics. In the mid 18th century experimenters in Europe devised the first practical methods of artificially carbonating mineral water as a commercial product. One of the most successful was Johann Jacob Schweppe (1740-1821), a Swiss jeweler who refined a carbonation technique invented by British scientist-theologian Joseph Priestley and started the Schweppes Company in 1783 to make and bottle sparkling water.

Ginger ale, like seltzer water, was seen as a healthy alternative to alcoholic beverages. Early ginger ales and ginger beers were cloudy, fermented yeast beverages, a type of "small beer"—with a very low alcohol content. As early as 1820, a beverage merchant named Lewis Horton set up Horton's Mineral Water Establishment—an early soda fountain—at Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street NW, near Center Market. Horton offered a variety of soda waters and ginger ales. "The medicinal virtues of these Waters are well attested, and generally known," Horton advertised. "Their moral tendency is equally obvious to a discerning community." Similarly, French-born Agricol Favier sold sparkling mineral waters in the 1840s from his confectionary stand at 19th and H Streets NW, offering a variety of flavors, including raspberry, strawberry, and lemon, as well as ginger ale. An 1835 advertisement in The Daily National Intelligencer claimed that ginger ale "unites and emits the salutiferous qualities of alleviating thirst, perpetuating health, and of producing an equilibrium in the system. The nomenclature of words and the blandiloquence and suaviloquence of language might be employed in adding fame and celebrity to the quiddity and quintessence of this luxuriant and scintillating ne dement"—whatever that means.

Advertisement from the January 8, 1835, edition of the Daily National Intelligencer.

Georgetown was an early center for the production of ginger ale and other sparkling beverages. In 1847, Julius Rother opened a soda water factory on the southeast corner of Olive and Green (29th) Streets, where a natural spring provided a convenient supply of fresh mineral water. In advertising his new enterprise, Rother offered a statement signed by nine local doctors that his establishment was clean and up to the highest standards. Rother's carbonation machines were said to be "so constructed as to ensure a full and perfect saturation of gas to a degree heretofore unknown to us."

One of DC's most prominent bottlers in the 19th century was Samuel C. Palmer (1839-1914), a native of Georgetown. In 1861, Riley A. Shinn, who had taken over Rother's depot, hired Palmer as a clerk. Ten years later, Palmer took charge of the business for himself. In addition to soda water, he offered a variety of sparkling beverages, including Cantrell & Cochrane's Belfast Ginger Ale, imported directly from Ireland. The firm of Cantrell & Cochrane is generally credited with first producing ginger ale in the 1850s that was not fermented from yeast but made by adding ginger to artificially carbonated water. For decades, C&C was considered the best ginger ale, noted for its clarity, crispness, and sophisticated aroma. Many imitators substituted capsicum, a much cheaper substance than ginger, to provide the drink's "bite." Samuel Palmer proudly advertised that his American Ginger Ale was "equal to the best" (meaning as good as Cantrell & Cochrane's). He also sold a variety of cider, beer, porter, and stout, and was the exclusive D.C. agent for Schlitz beer from Milwaukee. 

Samuel C. Palmer (photo courtesy of Randy Palmer).

According to an 1884 survey of Washington businesses, Palmer's enterprise employed upwards of 50 men  and boys and had 12 wagons and 22 horses at its disposal to deliver bottled beverages to local druggists, grocery stores, and other businesses. His bottling plant was equipped with the latest technology, including steam power, lightning bottle washers, patent filters, and advanced bottle filling and corking machines. Palmer also supplied soda and mineral water in casks, along with syrups in a variety of flavors, such as lemon and sarsaparilla. He would rent out marble-topped soda fountains to dispense his product in pharmacies.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Palmer had plenty of competitors. One of the largest was the Hermann Bottling Works, founded by John Frederick Hermann (1837-1927), a German immigrant, in 1874. Hermann's plant was initially at 809 2nd Street SE and through many decades of business was always located at a Southeast address. Hermann's son, August George Hermann (1862-1936), took over the business in 1902. The Hermanns produced a variety of bottled drinks and were perhaps best known for their ginger ales, including Tiger Ginger Ale, later known as "the ginger ale with a bite." Another turn-of-the-century competitor was Frank H. Finley & Son, at 1206 D Street NW. The senior Finley (1834-1892) had started as a cigar maker but turned to bottling in the 1870s. His son, also named Frank, advertised in 1896 that he would regularly load up a beer wagon and travel around to local D.C. suburbs, including Brookland, Bladensburg, Hyattsville, and Takoma Park, selling both beer and soft drinks to thirsty residents along the way.

Advertisement from the June 1, 1927 edition of The Evening Star.

Prohibition, which came to Washington in November 1917, was devastating to many local restaurants and breweries, but it brought new life to ginger ale and other non-alcoholic beverages. Ginger ale became one of the most commonly used mixers to improve the tase of bootleg alcohol. Particularly suitable was Canada Dry pale ginger ale, advertised as "the champagne of ginger ales." Canadian pharmacist John McLaughlin had first offered ginger ale for sale in Toronto in 1900, but some customers thought it too heavy and sweet, so he developed a pale-colored, lighter version, which became Canada Dry ginger ale. In 1923, two partners bought the company and brought Canada Dry to America, where sales skyrocketed. Surveys suggested that as many as three quarters of drinkers used the ginger ale to mask the flavor of bootleg alcohol. 

A couple of old Washington breweries, the Christian Heurich and Abner-Drury companies, tried their hands at producing soft drinks. Christian Heurich, the city's largest brewer, created an apple drink called Liberty Apple Champagne. However, the juice fermented in the old beer barrels it was stored in and became too alcoholic to sell. Abner-Drury, located like Heurich along the Foggy Bottom waterfront, produced ginger ale. Abner-Drury's bottle labels for its "Celtic Club" ginger ale claimed that the drink was "manufactured in accordance with original Belfast, Ireland formula from Jamaica Ginger, Zanzibar Chillies and Pure Fruit Juices." Cantrell & Cochrane won a court injunction in 1921 prohibiting Abner-Drury from using "CC" on its label or referring to Belfast—tactics that were viewed as intended to confuse customers into thinking they were buying Cantrell & Cochrane ginger ale. Abner-Drury continued to sell ginger ale, surviving Prohibition, but the company folded in 1935, two years after the dry era ended.

A bottle label from the Yankee Bottling Company (author's collection).

As demand for mixers grew, new companies ramped up to meet it. Some were quite small, like the Yankee Bottling Company, which produced a variety of carbonated drinks in the 1920s and 30s out of a small alley building at 640 C Street NE on Capitol Hill. The Capitol Bottling Company, started in 1906 at 10th and P Streets NW, produced Capitol Club ginger ale, another double-C name that subtly invoked the Cantrell & Cochrane brand. The Massachusetts-based Clicquot Club, widely advertised in Washington, was yet another ginger ale with a name that alluded to Cantrell & Cochrane—as well as to Veuve Clicquot, a well-known champagne.

Capitol Club advertisement (author's collection).

One of the most successful bottlers of this era was the Rock Creek Ginger Ale Company, started in 1920 by Lindsey P. Rawley (1888-1978) and his two younger brothers, Glenn (1893-1963) and William (1900-1977). The Rawleys were from Mount Airy, North Carolina.  They bought an old bowling alley at 215 7th Street SW and fixed it up to use as a bottling plant. Despite the name, the company used water from the Potomac, not Rock Creek. 

As recounted by Washington Post columnist Bob Levey in 1978, the Rawleys worked long hours in their early days to make a living. They had purchased a foot-operated bottling machine capable of turning out 40 cases an hour. Lindsey was in charge of mixing the product; his two brothers distributed and sold it via truck. Their first years produced little profit, but, armed with a contract for 3,000 cases a month from Safeway, Rock Creek soon became a well-known name. Evidence of its success lies in the fact that, by the 1930s, a rival company called the Root Rock Ginger Ale Company was also in business in the District, attempting to capitalize on Rock Creek's popularity.

Rock Creek Root Beer label from 1954 (author's collection).

Root Rock label from the 1940s (author's collection).

Rock Creek eventually became one of the largest independent bottlers in the country. In 1957, the company constructed a massive new 90,000-square-foot bottling plant at 500 Penn Street NE, just off of New York Avenue in Brentwood. The plant could spit out 400 bottles a minute and had storage capacity for 100,000 cases. In the early 1970s, Lindsey Rawley retired to Arizona, but he returned to DC to take over operations of the company after his brother William died in 1977. Lindsey spearheaded a drive to expand the company's operations, despite the fact that it was already the only independent soft drink bottler left on the East Coast. Sadly, Rawley died in 1978, only months after describing his ambitious plans to columnist Levey. Within a few years, family heirs sold the company to Canada Dry.

Matchbook cover from Rock Creek's final years, when it adopted the motto, "Come Home to Rock Creek" (author's collection).

Canada Dry continues to produce some soft drinks, such as cherry soda, that are branded with the Rock Creek label, but only in very limited quantities. The drinks occasionally can be found in convenience stores and a few grocery stores. With the success of local breweries in recent years, perhaps we will see more interest in local ginger ales and ginger beers in the future.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Chosi's Washington DC Area Beer and Soda Bottles, which offers extensive and detailed information about D.C. area bottlers and their wares. Other sources for this article included Elmer E. Barton, Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and Environs (1884); John Hull Brown, Early American Beverages (1966); Tristan Donovan, Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World (2014); K. Anne Ketz and Theresa Reimer, Breweries and Bottling Companies in the Washington Area (1990); Garrett Peck, Capital Beer (2014); Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (2007); Stephen N. Tchudi, Soda Poppery: The History of Soft Drinks in America (1986); Kim Williams and Andrea Mones, "Pure Water and the Red Oak Spring Company" (2015); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Was there a connection between Rock Creek ginger ale and RC Cola?

    1. No connection. RC Cola is short for Royal Crown Cola, from a company originally based in Columbus, Georgia.

  2. What about Tiger Tail Ginger Ale? Same as Tiger Ginger Ale? I bought it regularly for the 'bite' until the big guys bought Rock Creek. Then the tiger became toothless!

  3. Didn't Blair House put out ginger ale? I just remember their Texas Grapefruit soda (very good mixed with orange juice).

  4. Is Rock Creek still manufactured? I was in Rosslyn, and DC a few months ago, and couldn't find Rock Creek in VA, OR dc.


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