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‘Drain the Swamp’ Gave Us Potomac Park

Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his vow to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

In Eliza Scidmore’s day, residents complained about the “pestilential swamp” along the Potomac riverbank, near the Washington Monument. Everyone called the marshy area the Potomac flats.

It was a tidal wetlands that for many years served as a place of run-off for sewage and refuse carried by the Washington City CanalThe canal, which ran parallel to the northern edge of the National Mall, had been built as a major commercial waterway to carry goods into the city. But it fell into disuse and became an eyesore in the middle of the capital. During the blitz of city improvements under “Boss” Shepherd in the 1870s, the canal was paved over and is now Constitution Avenue.   

As a longtime Washington resident, Eliza Scidmore followed the efforts to clean up the flats and fill in the land. The work began in the 1880s and continued beyond the turn of the century.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

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