‘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.

Eliza Scidmore reported on a literal swamp clean-up in Washington while working as a young newspaper correspondent in the 1880s.

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 an area of marshy wetlands west and south of the Washington Monument. People called it the Potomac flats. Today we know the area as Potomac Park—home of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Tidal Basin and the city’s famous Japanese cherry trees.

The low-lying flats had formed over the years as sediment carried by the river’s current built up along the shoreline south of the White House and west of the National Mall. The flats stank after years of collecting sewage and other runoff from the foul Washington City Canal.

Early developers had built the canal as an inner-city waterway connecting the Anacostia River with Tiber Creek and the C&O Canal. The canal ran along along the northern edge of the National Mall, the site of present-day Constitution Avenue. But the waterway was not a success and fell into disuse.

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 city paved over the canal in the 1870s during the infrastructure improvements headed by alderman “Boss” Shepherd. But the flats remained a stinky eyesore. Echoing complaints of residents, the New York Times called the area 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)

In the 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers began filling in the swampy ground with soil removed in river-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 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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