Dis­trict’s Ti­dal Basin bathing beach was once home to some steamy fun

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly

While do­ing re­search about Ge­orge Mar­shall, I learned that he took daily swims in the Ti­dal Basin in the early 1920s, when he was aide-de­camp to Gen. John Per­sh­ing. It made me won­der if there was a time when swim­ming in the Ti­dal Basin was al­lowed.

— Tom Bow­ers, Ash­burn, Va.

Swim­ming in the Ti­dal Basin wasn’t just al­lowed. It was en­cour­aged. In the early 1920s, many Wash­ing­to­ni­ans ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated the an­nual open­ing of the Ti­dal Basin to swim­mers. Then as now, Wash­ing­ton sum­mers were hot and steamy. A dip was one way to cool off.

The Ti­dal Basin wasn’t cre­ated for recre­ational rea­sons, how­ever. It was a re­sult of the dredg­ing that was done to cre­ate West and East Po­tomac Parks. The Ti­dal Basin is a reser­voir with two sets of flood­gates that open in turn as the ti­dal Po­tomac rises and falls, flush­ing silt and de­bris from the Wash­ing­ton Chan­nel.

Swim­ming pools — es­pe­cially pub­lic swim­ming pools — were rare around the turn of the 19th cen­tury, so bathers started flock­ing to the 100-acre Ti­dal Basin. In 1903, the city con­structed two float­ing baths within the reser­voir, at the foot of 17th Street NW. The “queer-look­ing struc­tures,” as The Post de­scribed them, were in­tended for young­sters to “dis­port them­selves” in.

Dis­port­ing was strictly seg­re­gated in those days. One float­ing bath — 38 feet wide by 70 feet long — was for white bathers. A sec­ond bath — 20feet-by-54-feet — was for African Amer­i­can bathers. Such dis­par­i­ties were to plague the city for decades.

Ironically, although blacks could not swim with whites in the Ti­dal Basin, they could res­cue them. In 1908, a 16-yearold African Amer­i­can teen named Harry Jack­son saved a 60-year-old white man who had jumped from a bridge into the Ti­dal Basin in a sui­cide at­tempt.

Ameni­ties — for whites — im­proved over time, among them the in­stal­la­tion of a sandy beach and bath­houses on the Ti­dal Basin’s east­ern shore.

But if the Ti­dal Basin’s beach was a sym­bol of the Dis­trict’s seg­re­ga­tion, it was also a sym­bol of its pow­er­less­ness. Like many things in a city whose purse strings were con­trolled by Congress, the bathing fa­cil­i­ties at the Ti­dal Basin were con­stantly threat­ened.

In 1914, the Ti­dal Basin pools had to close mid­way through July when the money Congress had ap­pro­pri­ated ran out. The Post used its pages to raise funds to re­open them.

“This is only an­other strong link in the chain of ar­gu­ments in fa­vor of suf­frage for the peo­ple of the Dis­trict of Columbia,” P.T. Mo­ran, a Ge­orge­town busi­ness­man, told a Post re­porter.

When bud­get con­straints pe­ri­od­i­cally closed the life­guard-staffed Ti­dal Basin, some peo­ple would head to the Po­tomac or Ana­cos­tia to swim, a riskier propo­si­tion that inevitably re­sulted in drown­ings.

Who knows what Ge­orge Mar­shall thought of this, if he thought of it at all. What may have con­cerned him was whether he’d fit in the Ti­dal Basin in the first place. It was in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar, at­tract­ing as many as 9,000 peo­ple a day. In a 1919 Let­ter to the Ed­i­tor, a Post reader com­plained that he’d shown up one Sun­day in June to find 400 peo­ple wait­ing in line to get one of the 10-cent lock­ers that would al­low them to check their street clothes. (Bathers could also rent swim­suits: 75 cents for a woman’s; 25 cents for a man’s.)

But once in­side, vis­i­tors found a wa­tery nir­vana. They could splash in the sandy shal­lows or pad­dle out to the float­ing dive plat­forms. They could buy ice cream from a beach­side ven­dor. They could take swim­ming lessons.

The Ti­dal Basin was the site of swim races and ca­noe races. It was also the set­ting for beauty con­tests. In 1919 — two years be­fore the first Miss Amer­ica pageant — judges pro­claimed Au­drey O’Con­nor of South­west D.C. Wash­ing­ton’s most beau­ti­ful girl in a bathing suit. Her at­tire con­sisted of a blue-and-orange jumper, blue cap and orange tights.

In 1923, beauty shows were banned. The “tone” of the beach had fallen, said Col. Clarence Sher­rill, the city of­fi­cial in charge of pub­lic build­ings. Rules re­gard­ing at­tire would be more strictly en­forced, too. Suits had to come within three inches of the knee and have no open­ing be­low the armpits.

“Mod­esty is the key­note,” Sher­rill ex­plained.

In 1925, the Ti­dal Basin was closed to swim­mers, its beach ameni­ties de­mol­ished and carted away. There had been com­plaints that the wa­ter was pol­luted, but the real is­sue seemed to be re­luc­tance to al­low con­struc­tion of a beach for African Amer­i­cans on the western bank of the Ti­dal Basin. The only way to stave that off was to elim­i­nate any beach.

Next week: Div­ing into the deep end of the Dis­trict’s pool his­tory.


The Ti­dal Basin’s bathing beach — and women’s beauty pageants — be­gan at­tract­ing Wash­ing­to­ni­ans in the early 1900s.

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