It makes for a catchy slogan used by politicians of all persuasions, but there’s little truth to it.Yeah. It's a metaphor and it works.
What do Ron Paul, Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump have in common? They’ve all promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics.
These ambitious “hydraulic engineers” rely on a phrase that is deeply mired in our political discourse. The metaphor gets its clout from the notion that Washington was built in an actual physical swamp, whose foul landscape has somehow nourished rotten politics.The name "Anacostia" appears to have been derived from the Nacotchtank Indians, who called it “anaquash”
The assumption is just plain wrong: Washington was never a swamp, as I’ve discovered in exploring its first two centuries.
George Washington knew exactly what he was doing in early 1791 when he led the three-member commission that Congress had authorized to pick the site for the nation’s capital. There was never much doubt that the new federal district and city would be near the head of navigation on the Potomac River, adjacent to the thriving port town of Georgetown and well away from the squishy margins of Chesapeake Bay. Washington knew the region intimately as a nearby landowner and resident, and the site for Washington looked much like his home at Mount Vernon – a rolling riverside terrain of old tobacco fields.
Like many other early American cities such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, Washington was built on a firm and dry riverbank. The land sloped steadily upward away from the Potomac between Rock Creek and the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.
The spurs of land that extended northward from the main river were immediately obvious to Pierre L’Enfant, the French immigrant who mapped out the streets and squares for the new city. He picked one high point for the presidential mansion and one for the houses of Congress. After all, it’s Capitol Hill, originally called Jenkins Hill, not Capitol Slough.Anyone awake when they drove through Washington D.C. knows the entire city could not have been all swamp; it's way too hilly. And yet, there is some truth to the rumor:
Flowing between the Capitol and White House was Tiber Creek, a perfectly respectable watercourse whose route took it southward, roughly along North Capitol Avenue, skirted the future Union Station Plaza and turned west where Constitution Avenue now runs. The western part of the creek was turned into the Washington City Canal in 1815. The canal was pretty unpleasant by the 1840s, but that was because of inadequate sewers, not because of inherent swampiness.
The truly muddiest episode in Washington’s development came in the mid-19th century. After the Civil War, decades of farming in the Potomac River hinterland led to erosion that sent masses of silt downriver. As the Potomac slowed below its last rapids – where the river entered the District of Columbia – the silt precipitated into massive mudflats on the city side of the river.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Corps of Engineers began to reshape the flats into the Reflecting Pool, Tidal Basin and hundreds of acres of adjacent park lands for presidential memorials and blossoming cherry trees, creating a riverfront park that nobody today would associate with the word “swamp.”