Early History Before the European arrival, the Anacostia River system ran narrow and fast in the upper parts of the watershed and deep, broad and slow in its tidal parts. It was banked by an estimated 2500 acres of wetlands that inundated and dried according to the tides and the seasons. These wetlands supported a wide variety of plants, including wild rice, American lotus, and several kinds of underwater vegetation, which in turn gave sustenance to a complex web of invertebrates, shellfish, finfish, amphibians, reptiles, and wading birds. The forested areas along the river teemed with terrestrial birds and mammals, including large species such as wild turkeys, wolves, bears, bison, panthers, elk, deer and beaver.

east branch painting
east branch painting

The lower Anacostia basin was a native American crossroads, and for hundreds of years before the coming of the Europeans had been the home of a group of native Americans known today as “Nacotchtanks”, whose principal village was near the river’s mouth. Captain John Smith visited and mapped the river and the native village in 1608. The first permanent European settlers, Catholic dissidents from England, arrived in Maryland in 1634. Jesuit Father Andrew White, who accompanied the settlers and learned the local dialect, called the native people along the river “Anacostines”. Today ethnographers believe that the Native Americans were a subgroup of the regional Conoy or Piscataway tribe, and both the word Nacotchtank and its derivatives Anacostine and Anacostia are variations of “anaquashatanik”, a word that apparently meant a trading village in the native language.

With the European arrival, the river became known as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac. The Nacotchtanks were expelled from the area by about 1680, and plantation agriculture came to dominate the watershed. Tobacco became hugely profitable. As trade increased, the river’s forty foot deep channel close to the western shore allowed ocean-going ships to reach Bladensburg, which became a major shipping center for tobacco, cotton and corn. In 1790, Congress instructed President Washington to find a location on the Potomac for a new capital. Because of its deep channel and the existence of St. James’ Bay, a protected, easily defended shipping harbor less than a mile upstream from the Potomac, the Anacostia played a huge role in the selection of the site for the new District of Columbia.

In 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson asked Major Andrew Ellicott, who had replaced Pierre L’Enfant, to try to rediscover the native American name for the Eastern Branch. In a letter to Jefferson, Ellicott responded that some old surveys of the area appeared to include the words Anna Kastia. Jef­ferson then suggested that Ellicott consult with the District commissioners as to the propriety of adding “Eastern Branch or Annakastia” to his maps of the new city. The commissioners must have agreed with the idea, for the old word began showing up on maps by the time Congress moved to the city in 1800.

1800-1892 Physical and chemical changes

In 1800, the United States government moved to L’Enfant’s newly planned city and established its commercial and ceremonial waterfront on the Anacostia. However, eroded sediment from upstream cultivation was rapidly and dramatically changing the nature of both the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers. In both cases, the deep natural channel and the tidal wetlands were quickly filling in.

As the city grew, human and animal waste also had nowhere to go but into the water. By 1840, the Anacostia channel had shrunk to only a few inches at some points, and the early 18th century ocean-going port of Bladensburg, at the head of tide, had to be closed to water commerce. Moreover, spring and summer rains cascading down the tributary system had nowhere to go, and flooding in low-lying areas became common.

Bridge across Eastern branch of Potomac River, Washington, D.C., April, 1865
Bridge across Eastern branch of Potomac River, Washington, D.C., April, 1865

During the Civil War, the capital city’s population tripled, and it continued to grow rapidly after the war. Gutters and then enclosed sewers were built to move waste and street runoff away from residential and commercial areas directly to the streams and rivers. The waste, mixed with eroded sediment piling up in the former tidal wetlands, creating extensive breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies. Malaria and other insect-borne disease became commonplace, and a serious public health concern.

As the end of the 19th century approached, the sewage-laden mudflats along the river had become so pestilential that the East Washington Citizens Association and the Washington Board of Trade repeatedly begged Congress to do something. A 1900 report from the Board of Trade called the Anacostia “…this uninviting river, with its miasmatic swamps, whose baneful influence is so seriously felt by a large portion of the citizens of Washington, troops at the barracks, employees at the navy-yard, inmates of St. Elizabeth’s Asylum, and those in other public institutions located in that region….”

1892-1942   The Grand Anacostia Water Park

Because of the District’s unique federal status, its public areas, including its parks and streams, fell under the direct control of the US Army Corps of Engineers from 1867 to 1925. In 1892, the Corps responded to the increasingly insistent call to do something about the Anacostia’s disappearing channel and “miasmatic swamps” by using $20,000 of Potomac funds to begin dredging and filling operations near the river’s mouth.

1891 Army Corps of Engineers map of the Anacostia River and its tidal marshes
1891 Army Corps of Engineers map of the Anacostia River and its tidal marshes

Six years later, Congress asked the Corps for a detailed report on what could be done toward the “improvement of the Anacostia River and the reclamation of its flats.” Lt. Col. Charles Allen suggested that the Anacostia’s filled-in mudflats could be a public park, similar to what Congress had finally decided the previous year for the former Potomac mudflats.

But what kind of park could it be? In 1901, the U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia created the Senate Park Commission, and asked four prominent Americans—Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., Charles McKim and Augustus St. Gaudens—to be the commissioners. The charge of the Park Commission (better known then and now as the McMillian Commission after the District Committee’s chair, Michigan Senator James McMillan) was to comprehensively plan a new District’s federal park system, including the Mall, and determine the prime locations for new federal buildings.

Under Burnham’s stewardship, the McMillan Commission made big plans for improving the capital’s public open space. Its most lasting accomplishment was to reconceive the Mall to become something very like what it is today. But the Commission also looked to the sparsely-populated far eastern part of the city to conceive a great “water park” along the Anacostia River. Olmstead took on a special role as the team’s principal landscape architect—a role that he would reprise in various ways for over a half a century.

“Water park” did not have the same meaning a century ago as it does today. The commissioners did not envision an active amusement park with colorful slides and plastic spouting unicorns, but rather a placid lake surrounded by picnic grounds. A lake much like the tidal basin would be formed by the construction of a controlled dam built as an extension. of Massachusetts Avenue. Soft edges and gravel beaches would give swimmers and boaters easy access to the water.

Young girls boating in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. 1930
Young girls boating in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. 1930

In 1912, under the prodding of Olmstead, the Commission of Fine Arts approved the dam and lake scheme, expressing the opinion that “the execution of the improvement…developed in detail, will give to Washington a park of great beauty and value.” By 1915 the Corps had reached almost to the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge, about a half mile downstream from where the dam was to be built. However, further studies of the Anacostia’s sediment and sewage problems that year led the Corps to abandon the Massachusetts Avenue dam. Based on its new studies, the Corps recognized that soft edges, gravel beaches and safe swimming would no longer be possible, but boating would still be.

On the eastern side of the river, hundreds of acres of new land had been created, and Congress officially designated the new land Anacostia Park in 1918. However, legislative guidance defining the purpose of the park would not come for another six years and the dedication ceremony for the new park did not take place until 1923.

In a 1933 Executive Order, President Roosevelt transferred control of DC’s parks to a consolidated Office of National Parks, Buildings, and Reservations in the Interior Department, which Congress quickly renamed the National Park Service. Recreation continued to be the focus.

The Corps of Engineers’ dredging, walling and filling project continued until it was suspended by war in 1942. 23 Its work creating what came to be known as “Kingman Lake” on the west side of the river and a smaller “East Lake” across the channel from the upper inlet had been largely completed the decade before. However, neither Kingman Lake nor East Lake worked as planned. Sediment and sewage flowed in, and stayed.

1966-1976 Beautification and Recreation

frederick douglas housing project
frederick douglas housing project

By the mid 1960’s 24Washington had changed dramatically. It had grown by more than 300,000 residents from 1920 to 1960, and tens of thousands more has been displaced by the elimination of alley dwellings, “urban renewal” of entire sections of the city, and clearing for new government buildings. Affordable, high-density housing became a priority. This growth and change deeply affected the part of the city east of the Anacostia.

Over the next four decades, east of the river was the place to meet the demand for new public and private multi-family housing. As racial tensions and urban unrest swept across the nation in the mid-1960s, city and national leaders struggled to find ways to keep the peace. Longstanding concerns about providing adequate recreational outlets resurfaced. Anacostia Park, close to thousands of new apartment units, was an obvious focus.

Following Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 election, Lady Bird Johnson decided to devote her remarkable energy to beautifying and improving living conditions in the nation’s capital city. Realizing that she was going to need money not likely to come from Congress, Mrs. Johnson invited several philanthropists to serve on the 32 person committee, including Laurence Rockefeller, Brooke Astor, Stephen Currier, Mary Lasker, Katharine Graham, and Marjorie Merriweather Post. A nonprofit “Society for a More Beautiful Capital” was incorporated to receive and disperse contributions.

Lawrence Halprin, who had recently designed San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, was asked to develop ideas for a “constructive outdoor environment.” Halprin’s major recommendation was “that the Anacostia parklands be developed to their highest recreational potential both for local and citywide use.” In 1968, the Park Service proposed a park management plan based on Halprin’s recommendations. But little of significance was actually implemented; Kingman Lake remained sludge and weeds, East Lake became part of the District’s landfill, and disappeared. The amusement park idea became a three decade long debate before finally being abandoned, too.

Olmstead’s great waterpark idea was resurrected one more time, in 1972, by the National Capital Planning Commission. This time the waterpark was given a new form. Perhaps because it was now obvious that a deep, clean Kingman Lake wasn’t going to work, the waterpark was transformed into a series of clean water lagoons for swimming and fishing with “park bridges” and boardwalks in between.

An important funding opportunity was now on the horizon: the American Revolution Bicentennial Celebration, which would culminate in July 1976. In the Washington area and elsewhere, the National Park Service was mobilizing projects for renovation or reconstruction as part of the celebration. The National Visitors Center at Union Station and the National Mall and monuments consumed the bulk of the energy and money. But National Park Service leaders included new recreation projects for Anacostia Park as well, including a covered, open-air roller skating pavilion, a new softball field, basketball courts, a play area, and a covered picnic area. The lagooned waterpark didn’t make the cut.

1997 – 2007  Extending the Legacy to the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative

The mid-1990s were a time of dramatically increased pressure to alleviate the sediment, sewage, toxics and trash problems in the Anacostia River. The Anacostia Watershed Society and other environmental groups brought lawsuits. The Environmental Protection Agency demanded plans to control combined sewage overflows and stormwater runoff. Various government entities got together in an ongoing coordination body called the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee.

A rendering from Anacostia Waterfront Initiative Framework Plan
A rendering from Anacostia Waterfront Initiative Framework Plan

In 1998, Anthony A. Williams was elected Mayor of the District. Williams, who had been the District’s Chief Financial Officer, was a Harvard-trained lawyer and policy expert with an eclectic background including community development positions in St. Louis and Boston. He was as also an avid paddler, bird-watcher, and Sierra Club member. Williams had a clear vision of what a clean Anacostia and a great riverside park could mean economically and socially to a struggling city. He pledged to make restoring the river and surrounding area a top personal and District government priority. As part of this plan, a team of experienced urban development experts from around the nation developed a strategy for achieving the Mayor’s big vision. The planning team and its consultants created the “Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.”

Since the District didn’t own the land near the river, the critical first step was to invest the federal agencies owning land or having jurisdiction over the Anacostia. In 2000, A project steering committee comprised of the DC Office of Planning, the National Park Service, and the General Services Administration was created. One of the notable features of the subsequent planning process was its public involvement. Numerous workshops, charrettes and public meetings were held in neighborhoods likely to be affected, and a large stakeholder committee was created to offer input.

The document that was produced as a result of all the planning was the November 2003 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative Framework Plan. It was a truly comprehensive look at the possibilities for the Anacostia waterfront area, with five principal themes:

  1. A Clean and Active River (Environment)
  2. Breaking Down Barriers and Gaining Access (Transportation)
  3. A Great Riverfront Park System (Public Realm)
  4. Cultural Destinations of Distinct Character (Culture and Institutions)
  5. Building Strong Waterfront Neighborhoods (Economic Development)

The idea of the grand Kingman Lake waterpark was finally put to rest 97 years after it was born, when the DC government and the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to restore 42 acres of marsh. Although sewage was no longer the serious problem it had once been, eroded sediment from inadequate stormwater management upstream had continued to fill the lake until it was once again a mudflat at low tide. With a greater appreciation for the role of wetlands in riverine health than it had earlier in the century, the Corps built the mudflats back up and planted 700, 000 new plants.

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Rather than wait for the National Park Service, the District government moved ahead to implement some of the “waterpark” elements suggested by the AWI Framework Plan. “Boathouse Row” had been transferred to the District, and a new rowing center was built there. Yards Park, funded by the District as part of the redevelopment of the former Southeast Federal Center on the west side of the river near the new Nationals Stadium, incorporated prominent water features opened a canoe and kayak concession, and planned a new marina to open in 2015.

In a 2006 Commission of Fine Arts publication celebrating the 1901 McMillan Plan, Timothy Davis wrote, “The most egregious example of the disparate allocation of park resources, and the most dramatic deviation from the Senate Park Commission's comprehensive plan, was the failure to transform the neglected and polluted Anacostia River into the clean, safe, and appealingly diversified recreational environment extolled in the original report. Revitalizing the Anacostia waterfront remains the single greatest challenge facing Washington park planners.”

The road ahead

Yet there is still room to hope. In the dozen years since the Anacostia Framework Plan was developed, two important things have changed. First, the District and its two neighboring Maryland counties—wherein the entire Anacostia watershed is contained—have made significant commitments to reducing Anacostia River sewage and stormwater pollution, driven by the federal Clean Water Act and state and local laws. A process is underway that will, if allowed to proceed, clean up or isolate legacy toxics in the river bottom and on the shores. 42 While there is still a long ways to go, we can imagine a day in the near future when the waters of the Anacostia will meet water quality standards for full body contact. The notion of a real “waterpark”, where adults and children might safely wade, float, swim, paddleboard, canoe, kayak, sail and fish in a clean Anacostia River, is more realistic than it has been for nearly two centuries.

Second, thinking about the fundamental nature of urban parks continues to evolve. For decades, urban park thinking has been focused on providing passive and active recreational opportunities for residents. Today the National Park Service and many others are explicitly linking urban parks to equitable economic revitalization, education, training for jobs, healthy eating, cross-cultural understanding, and resiliency in the face of climate change and rising waters.

Today, the Anacostia is beginning to rebound. Water quality is still poor in the tidal river, with bacteria, sediments, chemicals, heavy metals, and oxygen-depleting nutrients and biological matter the most serious problems. However, the seawall is being allowed to crumble in some areas, and about 74 acres of wetlands have been recreated around Kenilworth Park and Kingman Island. Several dams have been removed farther upstream, and birds and aquatic life are on the increase. Federal, state, and local government regulations have largely ended point-source pollution and trash dumping.

Families enjoy a day in Yards Park
Families enjoy a day in Yards Park

Someday, the Anacostia will once again become a river that welcomes fishing, recreation, and even swimming. Yet, we have really only taken the first steps to rectify more than three and a half centuries of abuse. As a recent publication from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments succinctly states, “the recent improvements in water quality and aquatic biota of the tidal river are overshadowed only by the magnitude of remaining problems.”

More than a century ago, McMillan Commission Chair Daniel H. Burnham famously admonished city planners to “make no small plans….aim high in hope and work.” One hundred and twenty-four years after the first scoop of Anacostia river bottom was lifted onto a mudflat, despite a long history of failure, the dream of a grand riverfront park that helps to ameliorate the continuing disparities of the Nation’s Capital rightly refuses to die.

Images courtesy of Library of Congress and Krista Schlyer