The Bank of Presidents

Throughout much of American history, a Washington, D.C. bank, ultimately acquired by PNC, helped the country grow and prosper.

From westward expansion and the Civil War, through the Great Depression and post-World War II, you find the Riggs National Bank played a central role.

The year was 1836, Andrew Jackson was President of the United States, the Battle of the Alamo was waged in San Antonio, Texas and Arkansas became the 25th state in the union.

In Washington, D.C., William Wilson Corcoran opened a note brokerage house – an early version of a bank – across the street from the U.S. Treasury and the White House. The brokerage was the earliest known incarnation of the Riggs National Bank.

Later, a well-known New York financier, Elisha Riggs made a large investment in the D.C. brokerage house. William Corcoran and George Washington Riggs, Jr. (the son of Elisha Riggs) formed Corcoran and Riggs, a partnership that offered depository and checking services.

A Legend is Born

John Tyler was the first U.S. President to open an account at Corcoran and Riggs to deposit his presidential paycheck. That set the precedent earning the company the nickname “The Bank of Presidents.”

Over the next few years, Corcoran and Riggs counted American political giants Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster as clients. The famed explorer John C. Fremont also banked with the establishment.

In the mid-1840s the bank invested heavily in America’s railroads and land. The bank also provided most of the money used by the U.S. government to fund the Mexican War.

While the Civil War was brewing, President Abraham Lincoln opened an account at Riggs and Company to deposit his paycheck, shortly after Confederate president Jefferson Davis closed his.

President Lincoln is well-known for writing many memorable checks on his Riggs account. In particular, there was a check written to “Mr. Johns” (a sick man) and a check to Lincoln’s son Willie.

A Vision for the Future

The bank financed some of the most important inventions and events in U.S. history, including:

  • Financing for Samuel P. Morse’s invention of the telegraph.
  • Funding for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol Building in the 1860s.
  • Funding for Robert Peary’s first expedition to the North Pole.

Great national institutions like the National Geographic Society and the American Red Cross also banked at Riggs.

In fact, Red Cross founder, Clara Barton, began banking at the “Ladies Department” of Riggs in 1891. Women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony also was a client of the bank. When the government criticized the bank in 1915 for lending too much money to women, the bank responded by saying, “In law and in morals (women) have a right to transact their own business.” The Ladies Department at Riggs National Bank (the name was changed in 1896) existed until the 1960s.

An Iconic Bank Building

The bank’s legendary corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. was built in 1902 on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the U.S. Treasury and the White House. The building’s tall, ionic columns and triangular front pediment that framed its portico suggested a relationship between the bank and the U.S. Treasury.

Riggs Bank building
The Riggs National Bank building across the street from the White House and Treasury (Circa 1930s)

There is an oft-repeated but false rumor about a tunnel that connected the Riggs Bank building with the Treasury Department. However, there is a tunnel that connects the Treasury annex building (next door to the Riggs Bank) to the main Treasury building.

Although the tunnel was not connected to the Riggs Bank building, a PNC Legacy Project archivist found a note saying Riggs Bank used the Treasury tunnel once during the depression, to transport $14 million from Riggs to the Treasury.

When the Great Depression hit and about 40 percent of all U.S. banks failed, Riggs provided stability for other banks and their depositors in Washington, D.C. In Fact, Riggs Bank officers were among the national bank leaders who helped introduce federal deposit insurance, and in 1933 the bank joined the new Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

If you take a look at who’s who in American history, you’ll likely find a Riggs Bank customer. The list is long and includes most of the U.S. Presidents; a great many military heroes, including Ulysses S. Grant and General Douglas MacArthur; cultural icons like Francis Scott key and Tennessee Congressman/folk hero Davy Crockett.

 

Learn more about Riggs Bank through the PNC Legacy Project »

Phil Kitson
Riggs National Bank is now part of PNC Bank

Really Deep Pockets

In 1867, Riggs & Co. loaned the United States government $7.2 million in gold for the purchase of Alaska from Imperial Russia.