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Creating Potomac Parks, Hains Point, and the Tidal Basin: Potomac Flats Improvement Project

The land that the monuments in Washington sit on was, at one time, in the middle of the Potomac River. Transforming tidal flats and marshland into some of the best known landmarks in the world was an engineering feat that some have compared to better known projects such as the Statue of Liberty. Born out of necessity as the city grappled with flooding, blocked rivers, and managing the sewer system of a quickly growing city, the land the monuments sit on was reclaimed and dedicated to public use.

This blog looks back at how these parks came to be. It starts with the early days when Washington, DC was taking shape, goes through the efforts to control the water, and ends with the creation of parks from land once underwater.

Background and Historical Context

The Potomac Parks were created from a need to re-engineer the waterways of Washington, DC to support the city’s growth. Washington, DC, is situated along the Potomac River, which had multiple creeks and streams emptying into it within the city.

These water bodies, especially the Potomac, have been central to the city’s development and its challenges with flooding. Much of the land near the National Mall, along with other significant portions of Washington, DC were originally marshy and prone to flooding. Early efforts to develop and urbanize the city included filling in these wetlands to create more usable land, inadvertently setting the stage for future flooding issues.

As the city grew, the Potomac River, vital for navigation and commerce, became increasingly difficult for ships to navigate due to sediment build-up, creating tidal flats and marshlands that obstructed passage. Furthermore, environmental degradation became a pressing concern as the canal, serving as an open-air sewer, polluted the tidal flats and surrounding areas, releasing foul odors that plagued the city, including the Foggy Bottom area and reaching as far as the White House.


How they created East Potomac Park, West Potomac Park, Hains Point, and the Tidal Blossoms where the cherry blossoms are today #greenscreen #washingtondc #cherryblossom #dchistory

♬ original sound – not bored in DC | valerie

Original Landscape of Washington, DC

Before Washington, DC was first founded, the landscape looked completely different. In 1608 when John Smith sailed up the Potomac River to current day Washington, DC, he noted that “Some Otters, Beavers, Martins, Luswarts, and sables we found: and…fish lying so [thick] with their heads above the water…Neither better fish, more plenty or variety, had any of us ever [seen] in any place.”

The geography of the area was marked by large creeks and marshland. While today Rock Creek is the most widely known, the Tiber Creek spread out across the area and was a large watershed into the Potomac River. It emptied into the Potomac River below the present-day White House location, forming a wide channel where Constitution Avenue and the National Mall now stand.

When looking at a map from before Washington DC was built, or at early photographs of the city, one noticeable difference is that the point where the Washington Monument now stands was very close to the Potomac shoreline.

The area where the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Tidal Basin, and Hains Point are today was all underwater in the middle of the the Potomac River.

Potomac River in the 1800s

The Tiber Creek initially ran freely through the fields and hills of modern day Washington, DC, with wide, natural banks. By the early 1800s, the Tiber Creek was transformed into the Washington City Canal. This was accomplished by filling in the banks of the stream with earth and dirt, narrowing it significantly and changing its course. This canal ran along today’s Constitution Avenue and emptied into the Potomac River.

The Potomac River was much wider than it is today, and was about a mile wide. However, just because it was wide didn’t mean it was easy for ships to pass through. Soil and other sediment flowed into the river upstream during storms, and was carried down by the river to Washington. This filled up the riverbed, making it too shallow for ships to pass in many cases. This created tidal flats and marshland, blocking ships from passing through.

The Potomac wasn’t exactly a clean river at the time. The canal, once part of the creek’s natural flow, turned into an open-air sewer. As the sewage drained right into the tidal flats, these areas became exposed to the sun for half the day due to tides, baking the raw sewage int he sun and releasing a terrible stench. Picture a hot summer day when the garbage hasn’t been picked up; that’s similar to what the Foggy Bottom area would constantly smell like, with the unpleasant stench even reaching the White House.

The issue of flooding, intertwined with the challenges of sedimentation and pollution, became a prominent concern. The changes to the natural waterways along with inadequate infrastructure to manage stormwater led to regular floods, especially during heavy rains. These floods not only disrupted daily life but also highlighted the city’s vulnerability to the waterways it tried to bury.

The flooding was a vicious cycle, with floodwaters bringing more sediment to Washington, and the increased sediment making the flooding worse. The additional sedimentation had reduced the depth of the Potomac River’s Virginia Channel and Washington Channel to as little as 8 and 10 feet respectively in the 1870s. With a shallower riverbed, floodwaters were more likely to reach the city’s commercial corridors, flooding homes and businesses.

With the desire to reduce the impact of flood, need for more navigable waterways, and health effects of the waterways, the leaders of the city and nation recognized the desperate need to act. By the 1870s, the canals, now essentially sewers, had to be covered, and a solution needed to be found for the polluted flats. It was clear: for the health of its residents and continued growth of its businesses, Washington, DC needed a major cleanup.

Potomac Flats Improvement Project

With the goals to improve public health, make the river navigable, and reduce the risk of serious flooding, in 1882, the Army Corps of Engineers led by Peter C. Hains began the massive undertaking to dredge the Potomac River. The Potomac Flats Improvement Project’s would remove silt by dredging the Washington Channel along the Wharf as well as the Virginia Channel along the Virginia shore to make them navigable for cargo ships.

The sediment that was dredged would then be used to:

  • raise the land near the White House and along Pennsylvania Avenue NW by nearly 6 feet, and
  • fill in the tidal flats, or “reclaim” the land.

At this point, the tidal flats were as shallow as half a foot at high tide and completely exposed at low tide. Looking at a map of the water depth of the Potomac from 1882, the existing tidal flats line up with the present day East and West Potomac Parks.

Achieving this would require pushing the limits on the technology of the time. The Potomac Flats Improvement Project showcased new engineering innovations to transform the area into the Potomac Parks we know today. The initial phase between Easby’s Point (near where the Kennedy Center stands today) and 17th Street was particularly challenging, requiring a sophisticated collection of dredging machines, locomotives, railcars, scows, water pumps, and an elevated railway system to move over 12 million cubic yards of material.

Different methods were used to dredge the river. In the above drawing, material was dredged from the river through the use of a centrifugal pump, with the material forced to shore through the pipes situated on pontoons. This allowed materials to be taken out of the river and deposited on the tidal flats more easily.

At every step, engineers were challenged. With the new land mass created at East Potomac Park, the Washington Channel was cut off from the Potomac on the north, which resulted in sewage going into the channel. Anticipating this, the Tidal Basin was designed to collect water from the Virginia Channel at high tide and discharge 250 million gallons of water each day into the Washington Channel along the Wharf at low tide to flush it. This process is still used today to reduce the amount of sediments in the Washington Channel.

The new, backfilled land created what is today East Potomac Park and West Potomac Park. The Potomac was filled in just south of Easby’s Point (where the Kennedy Center is today) on the west up to the Washington Monument grounds to the east. From there, the parks went southeast, bordering the Washington Channel.

Dedicated Use as Public Parks

These efforts transformed the Potomac Flats from a breeding ground for disease and a barrier to commerce into new land, contributing significantly to the urban and environmental landscape of Washington, DC.

The reclamation project was largely completed by 1890, and debate continued about who had the right to the new land and what to do with it. Following a Supreme Court ruling saying that the government had control of the land, Congress designated the newly reclaimed land as West Potomac Park and East Potomac Park in 1897, ensuring their use as public parks forever, marking a significant shift in urban planning and land use.

Planning and Vision

The new land dedicated to public use was tightly intertwined with the desire to remake Washington, DC into a world-class city. The Senate Park Commission was formed in 1901 to define a single vision for the city, National Mall, and the new West Potomac and East Potomac Parks. The next year, the committee revealed the McMillan Plan, outlining the new vision for the National Mall and nearby parks.

At the time, the National Mall has a Victorian-era landscape design, with winding paths and lots of trees. The landscape design had been done at different periods by different architects, and did not flow seamlessly like the Senate Park Commission wanted.

The McMillan Plan called for a central, open, uniform space along the Mall to more closely mirror Charles L’Enfant’s original plans for the Mall. With the new reclaimed land, they envisioned space for new monuments (like the recently approved Lincoln Memorial) and “a place of recreation.”

Beautification efforts for the new land began in earnest in 1902, including the planting of sod, bushes, and trees; grading and paving of sidewalks, bridle paths, and driveways; and the installation of essential infrastructure like water, drainage, and sewage pipes.

West Potomac Park

The new land to the west of the National Mall became West Potomac Park. It stretches from west of the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, and from Constitution Avenue south to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The Tidal Basin and its shores are a part of West Potomac. It also includes the recreational fields (like the sand volleyball courts and baseball fields), the Park Police Horse Stables, and many of monuments.

West Potomac Park is often considered part of the National Mall, and it is administered by the same National Park Service team as the National Mall.

Iconic Monuments

The biggest draws to West Potomac Park are all of the monuments and memorials it contains. Within West Potomac Park, you can visit:

  • World War II Memorial: Tribute to the 16 million who served in the American armed forces during World War II.
  • Reflecting Pool: The iconic long, narrow pool offering a reflective surface that mirrors the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument
  • Lincoln Memorial: Memorial honoring the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, symbolizing freedom and equality.
  • DC War Memorial: Dedicated to the citizens of the District of Columbia who served in World War I.
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial: Life-sized statues of soldiers, complemented by a Wall of Remembrance, honors those who fought in the Korean War.
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Wall inscribed with the names of over 58,000 Americans who died or went missing in the Vietnam War.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: A towering statue of Dr. King emerges from the “Stone of Hope,” symbolizing his quest for justice and equality.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial: A sprawling outdoor memorial that chronicles FDR’s four terms in office.
  • George Mason Memorial: Honors the contributions of George Mason, a founding father known for his advocacy for individual rights.
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial: A neoclassical dome housing a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

Tidal Basin & Cherry Blossoms

Designed to capture water from the Potomac at high tide to flush silt, sediment, and sewage from the Washington Channel, the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC is still functional today.

Twice a day, the basin fills up with water from the Potomac River during high tide, like when a bathtub fills with water. This water is then used to ‘flush’ out silt, sediment, and any unwanted material from the Washington Channel, ensuring boats can travel through without getting stuck. Imagine flushing a toilet to clear away waste; the Tidal Basin does something similar for the channel. It covers an area of about 107 acres (imagine about 81 football fields put together) and can get as deep as 10 feet.

While the Tidal Basin is an engineering achievement, it is best known as the the best spot to view the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC. When the cherry trees were first proposed to First Lady Helen Taft in 1909, she did not believe the Tidal Basin would be a good spot to plant the cherry trees because she believed the recently reclaimed land was still too rough. However, by 1912, it was determined to be the best spot. The introduction of 1,800 cherry trees from Japan in 1912 transformed its landscape, deepening cultural ties between the two nations.

Every year, as spring emerges, the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin burst into a sea of pink and white flowers, drawing visitors from around the world. This magnificent display sets the stage for the Cherry Blossom Festival, a time of joy and celebration that honors the enduring friendship between Japan and the United States. It’s a reminder of nature’s renewal, inviting everyone to enjoy the fleeting beauty of the blossoms, which, despite an average lifespan of 40 years, continue to thrive, with some of the original trees still standing.

symbolizing friendship and renewal, frame the Basin and set the stage for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, a celebration of international camaraderie and the arrival of spring. Despite an average lifespan of 40 years, about 4% of the original cherry trees planted still survive today.

East Potomac Park and Hains Point

East Potomac Park, encompasses most of the new island that was created from the reclamation, starting south of the highway and extending to Hains Point on the tip. The reclamation of the land was completed in 1911, with the park officially opening to the public a year later.

Originally designed for leisure and recreation, the park offers a range of facilities including golf courses, tennis courts, and numerous picnic areas, catering to a variety of outdoor activities and gatherings. For many years it also included a public pool, but unfortunately due to engineering concerns (it was sinking!), it closed in 2016 and there are no plans to rebuild it.

A key feature of the park is Ohio Drive, known for its scenic views along the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. The introduction of approximately 1,800 Japanese Cherry trees in 1966-68 along Ohio Drive added a layer of beauty and has since become a hallmark of the park. While not as popular (or beautiful) as the Tidal Basin, each spring, this area becomes particularly popular for its display of cherry blossoms.


Through concerted efforts spanning over a century, the Potomac Flats Improvement Project transformed a once neglected and environmentally hazardous area into the monumental Potomac Parks, including the beautiful Hains Point and Tidal Basin. This enormous undertaking not only facilitated improved navigation and flood management but also created areas of cultural and recreational value.

As we look back on the project’s journey from reclamation to recreation, we are reminded of the ongoing challenges that lie ahead, particularly in terms of environmental sustainability and conservation. The Potomac River and its surrounding parks serve as a reminder of past efforts and a call to future action, urging us to continue preserving and enhancing these spaces for generations to come.


What was the purpose behind the creation of the Tidal Basin?

The Tidal Basin, spanning about 107 acres and reaching a depth of approximately 10 feet, was constructed with the intention of utilizing the tidal movements of the Potomac River to clear out silt and sediment from the Washington Channel.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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