With spring’s warmth come the tourist crowds to admire the Tidal Basin’s iconic monuments and cherry blossoms. Nothing says Washington like a photo of Jefferson’s neoclassical memorial sitting majestically on the basin’s low shore, framed by a wreath of cherry blossoms.
It’s easy to imagine that such an inspiring tableau could not have been an accident. Someone must have imagined it, maybe Pierre L’Enfant himself when he drew up the plan of Washington City, back in the 1790s.
In fact, the Tidal Basin appeared generations later, created for mundane, utilitarian reasons long before the advent of the cherry trees in 1912 or the Jefferson Memorial in 1943. Quickly evolving from an oversized puddle into DC’s public recreation center, it buzzed with activity, spring through winter, often expressing life’s lighter side. But the District’s schizoid nature, both local and national, edged much of the fun aside in favor of a different vision.
The basin was created as an aid to river navigation. Before anyone dreamed of planting cherry trees in Southwest DC, Washingtonians saw the need for a bigger and deeper harbor for the steamboats and sloops that were supplying their city with necessities like oysters, firewood and politicians. Steamboats serving Washington’s waterfront in Southwest had to negotiate the Potomac’s Washington Channel, narrow and prone to silting up. Simply getting in and out of the harbor demanded a succession of little jigs and jags forward and backward, then out of a mud bank.
At the request of Congress, Army engineers devised a plan to deepen and widen the channel and use the dredged mud to create made land that would separate the harbor channel from the Potomac’s broad stream. The corps began this process in 1882, under the direction of Col. Peter Hains, and largely finished it by 1890s. The resulting East Potomac Park is visible from any vantage point along The Wharf.
But a problem remained. What would prevent the dredged channel from filling up with muck again?
The engineers had a fix. Their plan included extending the made land northward, past 14th Street SW, creating West Potomac Park, and then looping it around to the river’s shore above 17th Street to enclose a big lagoon, the Tidal Basin. Why tidal? Because, in a bit of inspired green engineering the basin used the power of the river’s daily tides to flush out the Washington Channel’s silt.
The Potomac’s waters connect with the Atlantic Ocean via Chesapeake Bay, some 100 miles away, and rise and fall twice daily (more or less), about four feet up and down (approximately). The Army’s plan was to cut two openings into the Tidal Basin and fit them with gates to regulate the flow.
When the river rose, the waters would fill the basin through inward-swinging gates under today’s Ohio Drive. After the tide peaked and began falling, the outflow would push the doors shut, holding the water above the river’s level. As the river neared its low-tide level, the pressure differential would force open another gate located opposite the Washington Channel. The surge of impounded water would carry silt down the Washington Channel and out past Hains Point at the tip of East Potomac Park.
Time for a Swim
The next issue was what to do with all that made land. Cost-conscious officials suggested selling it to private developers to pay for the expense of dredging and reclamation. Most DC residents wanted to devote it to public use. But exactly what use?
Baseball fields, said some. A beautiful park adorned with monuments to the Founding Fathers, declared local patriots. A truck garden for growing vegetables, suggested President Grover Cleveland.
A swimming hole, said W.X. Stevens, a patent lawyer and ardent swimmer, who considered the made land ideal as a bathing beach. Until then, Washingtonians endured the hot summer days by leaving town, if they could afford it, or jumping into a local creek or the Potomac. Boys of all ages, regarding bathing suits as an unnecessary expense, skinny-dipped in fairly public settings. They also drowned in significant numbers.
At Stevens’ urging, the District government and Congress allocated part of the made land for a public bathing beach. With the blessing of the Secretary of War, who had authority over the basin, the beach opened in 1891 ‒ swimsuits mandatory ‒ on land that would later be home to the Jefferson Memorial.
The facility’s 18-acre expanse offered a sandy beach and separate but equal white and “colored” bath houses and staff. Stevens insisted that the beach be free and open to everyone, and the District government committed to that policy for the next three decades. The District usually provided a small appropriation to pay lifeguards, staff and also the superintendent, who was Mr. Stevens until he resigned in 1908.
The beach began as a male-only enterprise, but females were admitted within a few years and soon had designated time slots, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. In later decades mixed bathing became the norm.
Despite occasional grumblings by health officials that sewage contaminating Potomac’s water was causing infections among swimmers, the beach immediately became the District’s most popular summertime recreational venue. It had to relocate to nearby venues a couple of times, owing to construction issues, but remained free and racially separate but equal.
Cramped facilities at the alternative beach sites led to calls for returning the amenity –which many residents regarded as a summer necessity ‒ to the Tidal Basin. Congress, which functioned as Washington’s town council, funded the establishment of a large beach on the southeast side of the basin. When it opened in 1918, the new beach admitted only white patrons. At the urging of African American residents and the DC government, Congress appropriated funds in 1924 to construct a “colored” bathing beach on the Tidal Basin, opposite the white beach.
Before the African American residents could celebrate their win, a potent opposition began to lobby Congress to stop the beach. According to a contemporary newspaper account, “Interests concerned in the preservation of the park beauties of the capital” were asking that the basin be freed of “disfigurements,” meaning frivolities like swimming and picnics at the beach. Opponents were especially concerned that an additional beach would require sacrificing some of the Japanese cherry trees lining the basin. The trees were gifts from Japan and symbolized the friendship between the two nations. George Washington himself would not have been allowed to put an ax to those Asian beauties.
Objections to the “colored” beach were likely reinforced by nationwide race prejudices that exploded in the 1920s with bloody riots in Tulsa and elsewhere. Congress in 1925 decided to eliminate both bathing beaches, even though construction had begun on the “colored” one. A congressionally mandated search for alternative beach sites produced nothing useful. Back to skinny-dipping.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Fish Bait
Alongside the bathers there was a more solemn kind of water immersion. Local churches, notably African American congregations, saw the protected waters of the basin as ideal for baptism ceremonies, even in the cooler months. On a chill April morning in 1909, a newspaper reporter observed nine white-robed women and girls and two black-robed boys being baptized at the “colored” bathing beach. They entered the basin’s frigid waters “without flinching.” Even braver were members of the Union Christian Baptist Church who in 1917 were baptized at the beach in January. A warmer and far larger ceremony in July 1912 saw more than 250 baptized.
Reference to a biblical parable about loaves and fishes may be a good way to introduce how DC residents saw the Tidal Basin as their local fishing hole, providing food for the body and soul. The basin offered habitat for all kinds of fish, large and small, and all varieties of people, from civil servants and professionals to boys and loungers. “I’ve been here every day since the fish started biting,” remarked an African American clergyman in March 1914. “It’s the only recreation I get, and the outings give me plenty of fine fish and better prepare me for preaching.”
Anglers told fabulous stories about basin fishing. In June 1905 one of them landed a catfish that bystanders claimed was four feet long and weighed about a hundred pounds. In March 1912 the big event was the catch of 11 largemouth black bass, one of the nation’s premier gamefish. The U.S Bureau of Fisheries estimated in 1926 that the basin held 300,000 largemouth bass, nearly one fish for every DC resident.
Another prized gamefish, the rock or striped bass, made a splash in October 1959, when a Northwest DC resident casting into the basin landed a 6-pounder and then a 5-pounder. In March 1971, the basin gave up two stripers weighing more than 10 pounds each. As recently as 1983 the basin produced an even larger fish when a local business owner reeled in a carp weighing 57 pounds, 13 ounces, which the Washington Post’s fishing editor declared was a potential world-record.
When winter beckoned and the weather got too cold for fishing, the skaters appeared. East Coast winters were colder a century ago, and rivers like the Potomac would freeze over. Each December the Tidal Basin would become the de facto municipal skating rink, with ice up to six inches thick. Press accounts speak of hundreds of skaters at a time. One evening in January 1903, when nearly a thousand skaters were on the ice, 15 of them fell through a thin spot and three of them, a woman and two men in their 20s and 30s, drowned.
Today’s Tidal Basin, now under the authority of the National Park Service, has lost many of its old-time amenities and amusements like baptizing, swimming and skating. The advocates of the early 1900s, who campaigned to make DC a capital worthy of a great nation even at the expense of local preferences, had won. The District’s profile became defined by massive neoclassical buildings and monuments that referenced an imagined affiliation with great civilizations of the past. A National Park Service website calls the Jefferson Memorial “A Pantheon among the Cherry Blossoms.”
But like those empires of old, the basin has shaky foundations. The massive seawall protecting its shoreline has footings resting on ‒ mud. Decades-long subsidence allowing water to encroach on the land has led the Park Service to propose a $120 million rebuild that will anchor the wall in bedrock. Fortunately for the devotees who come from far and wide to enjoy an inspiring, unsullied beauty, the basin’s checkered history and current problems are obscured by the cherry blossoms and the monuments.
Southwest resident William Zeisel is a partner in QED Associates LLC, a consulting firm that has conducted extensive research on the history of the DC area. He is co-author of the official history of the University of the District of Columbia.