In the early 1960s, I had a job driving the Swan Boat around the Tidal Basin. It was perhaps 40 to 50 feet long, with a large swan figurehead and bench seats accommodating about 60 people. We picked up passengers from the floating dock where the pedal boats were rented, made a loop around the perimeter of the basin — past the cherry trees, Japanese memorial lantern and Jefferson Memorial — before returning to the same dock. I was employed by a Ben Hall who held a contract with Government Services Inc. I’ve often wondered what happened to the Swan Boat.
— Jim Caskey, Rockville, Md.
Answer Man has foundered in his attempts to discover what became of the very last Swan Boat. GSI — now known as Guest Services Inc. — has no record of when the boat took its final voyage. Nor was the National Park Service able to put its finger on an exact date.
The last mentions that Answer Man could find of the Tidal Basin’s Swan Boat were in 1971 in the Evening Star. Boat rides were listed among tourist attractions in Washington.
In September of that year, the Star ran a photo of a crane lifting the boat over the Tidal Basin inlet bridge to be placed into the Potomac River for its “yearly trip south to Fort McNair for the winter.”
And there the trail runs cold. No more mentions of the Swan Boat. (The folks at Fort McNair said they don’t recall the Army base being the vessel’s winter port.)
If Answer Man cannot with certainty say when the Swan Boat stopped sailing, he can say when it started: June 15, 1926. That’s when 4-year-old Peggy McLaughlin christened the first boat by pouring a bottle of milk over its bow.
The boat had been purchased by the Evening Star newspaper as a way to raise money for Children’s Hospital, where young Peggy had been a patient. Rides were a quarter for adults and a dime for children, with proceeds benefiting the hospital’s Child Welfare Service. Janet Noyes, wife of the newspaper’s boss, Frank B. Noyes, served as president of the Child Welfare Society.
Washington was late to the Swan Boat game. They had debuted in Boston’s Public Garden in 1877, when Robert Paget won a concession. Paget’s boats were powered by pedaling passengers. The swan decoration hid the captain and was inspired by a scene in the Wagner opera “Lohengrin,” in which a boat drawn by a swan carries the heroine across a lake.
Washington’s first Swan Boat consisted of two 26-foot-long airtight pontoons on which rested seven rows of seats atop a six-foot-wide platform. The boat was powered by a 4 ½ horsepower engine that was concealed underneath a steel swan. It could carry about two dozen people on a 25-minute trip around the Tidal Basin. Passengers boarded at the foot of 17th Street NW.
The following summer, an ad for the Swan Boat reminded Star readers that “the Swan Boat offers the unusual opportunity for personal pleasure, combined with charity. Let your kiddies be thrilled by a trip around the Basin in this safe and smooth-riding boat. You, too, will enjoy it — like taking the children to the circus. And, when you reenter your car, you will glow with pleasure in the realization that you have helped the less fortunate children of the District by your contribution to the Child Welfare Society.”
In 1929, the Star sold the Swan Boat to Government Services Inc. for $1,000. Answer Man isn’t sure how long that particular vessel was in service, but it was replaced over the years by different boats.
The Swan Boat that was lifted from the Tidal Basin in 1971 didn’t have the pontoon design of the original boat. It looked more like a traditional launch, with a raised gunwale running around the perimeter. It had a roof to protect passengers from the sun. The neck and head of a swan rose from the bow, while on the stern were large letters: “SWAN.”
The cost of a ride had been increased to a whopping 35 cents.
Today, Tidal Basin tourists may rent their own personal Swan Boat: It costs $34 an hour to rent a two-person pedal boat adorned with the large, sinuous neck of a swan — and an electric motor. (The craft is designed for boaters with disabilities.)
As for the multipassenger Swan Boat that our reader Jim remembers, please look in your back yard and see whether it’s washed up there.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.