Mapping the city’s historic hydrological landscape
I’m interested in water issues and historical land use in Washington, D.C. Working from old maps and reports, I’m making maps that show the course of long-lost streams and forgotten shorelines. I lead landscape history tours of DC, exploring underappreciated aspects of the city’s growth.
Here’s the hydrographic situation in 1859
Slash Run (now the namesake for a burger joint) flowed from Adams Morgan down through Dupont.
Tiber Creek is the big boy, draining much of the city. It ran from a spring in the present-day McMillan Reservoir down through Union Station—Swampoodle—and past the Capitol Building. At the Mall, Tiber Creek merged into the ill-fated Washington City Canal and debouched into the Potomac’s wide tidal. There was a large public wharf at the end of the canal, along 17th St. below the White House.
James Creek ran from near the James Creek Marina up to Eye St. SW. It split the southwest waterfront in two, dividing Buzzards Point from Greenleaf Point. The creek might have flowed more freely at the time of the city’s founding, but by 1859 it was already a marsh.
In the 1870s, a city project turned the marsh into a canal, host to schooners and barges delivering lumber and sand to the surrounding industries. Pedestrians fell down the canal’s sloping sides and drowned, and the slow-moving waters spread foul air over the neighborhood.
The Potomac River waterfront, downstream of the 14th St. bridges, served steamer traffic to the rest of the Chesapeake Bay. The Municipal Fish Market was located there, as well. When the market’s buildings were razed in the 1960s, the vendors moved to boats and barges moored along the wharf.
West of the Mall, much of the Potomac was tidal flats, mud at low tide. East Potomac Park on Hains Point was created by Corps of Engineers dredging work in the first decade of the 20th century.
Similarly, there are large expanses of marshland along the Anacostia—not bare mudflats, but wetlands that were host to semiaquatic vegetation. That slow-flowing river was already beginning to clog with sediment washed down from Maryland farms. The Anacostia’s modern shoreline is also mostly the result of 20th century dredging and landfilling.
Historic data from Albert Boschke’s 1856–1859 survey, published as a map in 1863. Modern data from DC GIS and OpenStreetMap. DEM (topography) from USGS.