D.C. Isn’t a Swamp (No, Really it’s a Myth)

Drain the swamp is a phrase uttered long before Donald Trump came into office. The insanely humid weather, the random week-long bouts of rain, and ridiculous amount of mosquito’s all make it seem swamp-like.

But…D.C. isn’t a swamp – really. It’s actually a myth. But how did it start?

Well, it got started a long time ago. D.C. was built on low, flat land. This flat land was surrounded by three waterways: the Potomac and Anacostia rivers are ones we’re familiar with, but there used to be one called Tiber Creek. Throughout the 1800s, any time it rained heavily Tiber Creek overflowed onto the mall and often left puddles the size of ponds. This lead to visitors who were around during that time to describe the area as swampy. However, the locals knew this was only a short-lived phenomena.

Tiber Creek raced through the city from the base of Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. It was roughly 800-feet wide and created a natural drainage area from other bodies of water in the area. It was later diverted underground in 1871 (which is why we don’t see it anymore).

According to Don Hawkins, an urban historian, “Within the original city’s boundaries (the area south of Florida Avenue), only about 2 percent of the total area fits the definition of a swamp.”  He even adds, ” In fact, for a riverside site, it was amazingly free of swampiness.”

The above picture is courtesy of the library of congress – from the mid-19th century.

Furthermore, as the city continued to develop, erosion and silt deposits continued to fill the natural drainage channels on the National Mall, until they were all but gone. You can see below the puddling that took place during extreme rain. Admittedly, it was a little swampy, but not a full blown swamp. And, remember, it didn’t happen all the time – just during intense rain:

The 1870s saw an even further continuation of depleting what swamp-like land remained. First, the materials they dug from the Potomac became landfill on the National Mall, adding 700+ acres to the land and filling in almost all of the leftover marshy areas. See below for what it looked like during construction — a little bare, but not too swampy, right?

Today, swamp-like, marshy pockets don’t really exist, especially near the National Mall and levees built later on (the first set in the 1930s) continue to protect the Mall and SW from flooding – or even having pond-sized puddles.

I mean, think about it logically for a second. Would the massive buildings that dot the mall really have survived to the present had their foundations been sunk in muck? Probably not.

As one writer for CityLab said, “steam bath does not make a swamp,” but it certainly has made for a pervasive myth, hasn’t it?

Sources: Washington Post, Mall History, CityLab