Before ‘Drain the Swamp,’ Washington Filled It In. Now We Have Potomac Park.

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

Eliza Scidmore, the subject of my book in progress, was working as a young newspaper correspondent in the 1880s when she reported on a literal swamp clean-up in Washington.

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)

The “swamp” was actually an area of marshy tidal wetlands. Today we know that part of Washington as Potomac Park—home of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Tidal Basin and the city’s famous Japanese cherry trees.

Back then, people referred to the area as the Potomac flats. The low-lying mud bank had formed over the years as sediment carried by the river’s current built up along the shoreline. The flats stretched in a wide arc south of the White House and west of the National Mall. The still-unfinished Washington Monument stood near the shoreline.

At high tide, the river submerged the Potomac flats. When the water receded, it left behind a mucky plain of weeds and rank pools.

This photo, taken in 1860 by someone from Matthew Brady’s studio, shows the Washington Canal, which flowed along the route of present-day Constitution Avenue. The new dome of the Capitol was installed during the Civil War. (Source: Library of Congress)

The place stank. For years it had collected runoff from the foul Washington City Canal.

Early developers had built the canal as an inner-city waterway to promote commerce by connecting the Anacostia River with Tiber Creek and the C&O Canal. Washington Canal ran along along the northern edge of the National Mall, on the site of what today is Constitution Avenue. But the canal was not a success and fell into disuse. Until it was paved over in the 1870s, during the city’s facelift headed by alderman “Boss” Shepherd, the canal functioned as an open sewer spewing nasty refuse onto the flats — human waste, carcasses of dead animals, rotting fish and produce from market stalls on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In hot weather, the stench drifted north to the White House. Residents blamed the Potomac flats for a “deadly miasma” that caused epidemics of malaria and yellow fever.

In an 1882 editorial The New York Times referred to the area as a “pestilential swamp.”

The Army Corps of Engineers used soil removed in river dredging operations to fill in the low-lying Potomac flats. (Source: Scientific American, Sept. 19, 1891)

Finally, after major flooding in the area, Congress agreed to do something about the irksome flats. The Army Corps of Engineers launched a project to raise the level of the ground by filling the area with soil removed in dredging operations.

The project, which continued to the end of the century, eventually gave Washington more than 600 acres of “reclaimed” land for public use. Eliza Scidmore reported often on the progress of what became Potomac Park.

And so it was, after traveling to Japan in the 1880s, that she began campaigning to have cherry-blossom trees planted on the onetime “swamp.”

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