The riverbed of the Potomac is exposed near the Memorial Bridge on March 3. (Kevin Ambrose)

Last week’s wind storm didn’t just topple trees and knock out power to a few hundred thousand customers in the Washington region. It also drained the Potomac River enough that artifacts from perhaps long ago were revealed on the newly dry floor.

While the winds in New England were onshore creating an enormous tidal surge on the coast of Massachusetts, they were away from the shore in the Mid-Atlantic. The effect was a little end-of-times, with bays and tidal basins emptying to just inches of water. It’s literally called a blowout.

A blowout is basically the reverse of a storm surge. Water is pushed away from land by the wind. On Friday and over the weekend, water in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay was pushed into the Atlantic Ocean by strong, persistent winds that aligned with the geography of the waterways. The strong wind persisted for more than 48 hours, pushing water out to sea.

On Saturday, the blowout lasted even through the high tide, which illustrates how strong the wind was — they usually only happen during low tides. Many of the photos in this post were taken closer to high tide than low tide.

Judging by water marks on the river gate to the Tidal Basin, the water was about four to five feet below normal, which makes it comparable to the only other significant blowout in D.C. history.

After the Great Blizzard of 1888, the Potomac experienced a similar blowout. At the time, the Evening Star reported that the water level dropped five feet below the normal level at the District. The Star also reported that “old salts” had never seen the river in such a state, and people walked the exposed riverbed looking for souvenirs and discarded tools.

I had always wondered what the people found on the bottom of the Potomac River back in 1888, so when it looked like a blowout was in the forecast on Saturday — 130 years later, I couldn’t resist walking the same riverbed to document what’s on the bottom. I was surprised at what I found.

The photos in this post were taken Saturday morning and show the Potomac River with river-bottom close-ups, photographed from near the Memorial Bridge to the Tidal Basin.

Let us know if you got a chance to see or photograph the Potomac River or Chesapeake Bay during the blowout, and share your photos with us on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

Got milk?

An antique milk bottle is exposed on the dry riverbed near the Jefferson Memorial. It’s embossed “Chestnut Farms Dairy Washington, D.C.,” with an image of a chestnut tree. We’re guessing this bottle was probably discarded in the 1920s or 1930s.

(Kevin Ambrose)

4+ feet below

A view of the gates where the Potomac River meets the Tidal Basin. The stains on the gate show the normal water level, which makes it easy to compare to the 1888 blowout.

(Kevin Ambrose)


A beautiful piece of rose quartz was found in the riverbed. It’s been chipped on the edges, so it could be an artifact from Native Americans, or it could have broken that way naturally.

(Kevin Ambrose)

The District is sinking, and sea level is rising

The sea level around Washington is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast — partially because the land is sinking, partially because of climate change. These old stone walls near West Potomac Park used to be above water but are now submerged.

(Kevin Ambrose)

So much fishing gear …

There was a lot of fishing gear that had been lost to the depths.

(Kevin Ambrose)

(Kevin Ambrose)

but it couldn’t catch this guy

A turkey vulture feeds on a big, beached catfish. Yum.

(Kevin Ambrose)


Bummer, it’s just a toy.

(Kevin Ambrose)

Light it up

A clay diya lamp was lost or discarded in the Potomac River, and it now rests on the bottom. This is one of three clay lamps I saw walking the riverbed.

(Kevin Ambrose)

They see me rollin’

This may be part of an old steam roller that was dumped into the Potomac River after the construction of West Potomac Park. Whatever it is, it’s very big and heavy.

(Kevin Ambrose)

Chow time

A cast-metal pot with legs and handles was thrown into the Potomac River many years ago.

(Kevin Ambrose)

What is this?

This unknown object is stuck in the mud at the bottom of the Potomac River near the Memorial Bridge. The blowout tide revealed it for a few hours. Anyone know what it is? Seems like something off a large boat or maybe a dock — like a lantern hanger?

Mystery solved (we think)

A few readers said they think it’s a part from a modern motorcycle frame. We were way off track.

(Kevin Ambrose)

Better homes, better gardens

It’s not fine china, but this porcelain plate somehow found its way to the bottom of the Potomac River.

(Kevin Ambrose)

So. Many. Tires.

People, please stop throwing your tires into the river.

(Kevin Ambrose)

Just a coincidence

The water was drained out of the Reflecting Pool at the same time the Potomac River had its blowout — but it was just a coincidence. The pool was due a cleaning, according to a ranger from the National Park Service.

(Kevin Ambrose)

Many logs, many sticks

Logs and sticks rest on the muddy river bottom near the Lincoln Memorial. (Kevin Ambrose)

There is plenty of driftwood in the Potomac River. (Kevin Ambrose)

Exposed river mud near the Netherlands Carillon on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. (Kevin Ambrose)

The river bottom near the Memorial Bridge. (Kevin Ambrose)

A view of the riverbed near the Lincoln Memorial. (Kevin Ambrose)

The bottom of the Tidal Basin is exposed near the Jefferson Memorial. (Kevin Ambrose)