Tidal Basin bathing in the District, between 1915 and 1923. (Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress)

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-de-camp 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 — 20-feet-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-year-old 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.


Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.