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.