‘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)

The Army Corps of Engineers decided to kill two birds with one stone by filling in the swampy flats with soil removed during dredging operations in the Potomac River. The filled-in land eventually gave the city more than 600 acres of land for public use. The reclaimed area extended the National Mall by a mile west of the Washington Monument. Today, the Lincoln Memorial occupies the spot at the far end.

The project also created the reservoir we know as the Tidal Basin. Shaped like a four-leaf clover, it was designed with sluices that opened and closed at the changing of the tides to allow the free flow of freshwater between the Potomac and the Washington Channel. The Jefferson Memorial was later added to an island at one end of the Tidal Basin.

That landscape — a former “swamp” — also became the site of the city’s now world-famous Japanese cherry trees, an idea Eliza Scidmore carried home from Japan after she began traveling there in the 1880s.


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)



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