DC Mythbusting: Built on a Swamp?

Photo courtesy of
‘Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – Egret Among the Reeds – 7-20-08’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting.  I’m sure you’ve heard that the muggy mosquito-filled summers in DC are due to its location on a swamp.  The Chicago Tribune named their DC bureau’s blog “The Swamp” and it is oh-so-clever to call sleazy politicians “swamp creatures“.  And yes, we all know that summers in the city are humid and gross and miserable… but was DC really built on a swamp?

Not really– today it’d be called more of a tidal plain.  When Pierre L’Enfant set out with a team to survey the city, there was a lot of variety in what he found: fields of tobacco and corn, small forests, and some waterside bluffs and wetlands.  Most of the marshy areas were along the rivers and were susceptible to tidal fluctuations and intermittent flooding, but most of the core of the Federal City wasn’t marshy.  That being said, DC was and still is a water-rich city, with the Rock Creek, the Tiber Creek (which was enclosed in the 1870s), the Potomac River, and the Anacostia River and countless creeks.

The truth is, there was a lot of variation to DC’s original landscape, and it helped L’Enfant determine the appropriate sites for important buildings.  The top of Jenkins Hill was designated as the site of the Capitol Building and a steep bluff adjacent to the Tiber River was chosen as the site of the White House.  The Potomac River was a lot wider than it currently is, and the current locations of the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial were in the middle of the river when L’Enfant arrived.  Most of what land existed of the National Mall back then was very flat and low, and typically used for grazing animals.

On a side note, if you’re interested in reading further about the natural geography of Washington and how the city looked back in the 1800’s, I’d highly recommend reading this recent Washington Post Magazine article.  It describes the process used to map out the topography of the area and create a database that allows a user to go back in time and view what an area looked like 200 years ago.

So in conclusion, DC was not built on a swamp.  While there were some marshy areas near the rivers, the land that is now Washington DC was a mix of thickly wooded slopes, bluffs and hills, crop land, and several major waterways.  Even though it may feel swamp-like out there during our unbearably humid summers, remember that it’s due to our humid subtropical climate and not because the city was built on a swamp.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

8 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Built on a Swamp?

  1. Thanks for the reference to the Post Magazine article, which I had missed. I didn’t realize DC once had a Tiber Creek.

  2. It STILL has that creek – it runs under the Mall and is one of the reasons certain govt building basements flooded a few years back. Did they ever clean up that mess under the IRS? Ifthey uncovered the creek, I think it’d be a nice addition to the topography of the Mall and museums.

  3. Kathy, here’s the report on all that flooding, which believe it or not does not mention the creek as a cause of the flooding. But you’re absolutely right, the Tiber Creek is still underneath it all!

  4. Thanks, Shannon, I’m going to share that flood report link now. It shocks me how many local homes are built on creek/stream beds and the current homeowners are totally oblivious. They wonder why their badement floods each time it rains. Well, check the local topography and old maps — bet you are sitting on a creek that was damned up or covered over, where do they think all the water will go then?

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