Every corner of the District seems to be etched with history, but some places are overrun with tourists. For a glimpse of history off the beaten path, try a bike ride along the banks of the Anacostia River — a quick escape from the city where one can soak up calm, lush wetlands and wildlife.
Anacostia Park — stretching five miles along the banks of the Anacostia River from where it meets the Potomac River up to the Maryland border — was established in August 1918, when Congress passed legislation to preserve the area as a park. This year, its 100-year milestone gives us a moment, says Vince Vaise, a veteran historian and ranger with the National Park Service, to reflect on the past, gain inspiration for the future and appreciate the resource we have: “It wakes us up from our historical amnesia.”
For the centennial, the National Park Service, local organizations and district agencies will host a two-day birthday bash Friday and Saturday, including a concert, fishing competition, disco skating party, boat tours and yoga classes. Also on Saturday, the Park Service and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association advocacy group will lead a group of cyclists on a history tour.
For those who can't join the bike ride, Vaise and WABA's Ursula Sandstrom took The Washington Post on a ride to re-create this guided tour. It is a road less traveled — although Vaise envisions a grander future for this park.
“Everyone knows about the Mall,” he said. But some of those buildings “were not around a hundred years ago. Maybe in 2118, there will be a state-of-the-art visitors center in Anacostia Park. It may sound far-fetched, but look at what has come to pass in 100 years."
This self-guided ride — from the south end of Anacostia Park, across the John Philip Sousa Bridge toward RFK Stadium, then crossing Benning Road to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens — is about seven miles. Google Maps says that stretch should take a cyclist a little more than 30 minutes, but with stops to admire the scenery, you can plan for about two hours.
Since there are few signs detailing the river's history along the trail, here are highlights from the guided tour for you to contemplate along the way.
Native American history
Location: At the mouth of the Anacostia River, between Anacostia Park and Bolling Air Force Base
The name Anacostia is derived from Nacotchtank, a village home to Native Americans, east of the river in the 17th century, between present-day Bolling Air Force Base and Anacostia Park. Forty years after their first contact with Europeans, the Nacotchtanks had been decimated, killed by diseases introduced by the Europeans and in wars. English explorers recorded the area as “Nacostine,” which was later Anglicized as Anacostia.
Location: Stone outcroppings along the river on Anacostia Drive SE
This area had largely been wetlands. Around the turn of the 18th century, its forests were clear-cut for farmland, including tobacco farms, causing erosion that silted the river. In the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river and its streams to create usable land, which Congress in 1918 designated as Anacostia Park. Streams were routed through underground pipes that flowed into the Anacostia, but to make these pipe outlets “aesthetically pleasing,” Vaise says, they were “dressed” as stone outcroppings that act as viewpoints and fishing piers — some located along Anacostia Drive.
Assassin's Trail and the Bonus Army
Location: Anacostia Drive and Good Hope Road SE
Assassin's Trail: John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, fleeing across the Anacostia River via the Navy Yard Bridge — at the site of the present-day 11th Street Bridge — and continuing down Good Hope Road. Troops found Booth 12 days later, about 70 miles away, in a tobacco shed on a farm south of Port Royal, Va.
Bonus Army: During the Great Depression, in the spring 1932, thousands of World War I veterans — who earned $1.25 a day during the war (less than stateside workers who made military supplies) and a $60 discharge payment when they returned home — marched to Washington to demand a bonus.
Nearly 11,000 veterans set up a shanty camp south of 11th Street Bridge where Anacostia Park is now. Congress refused to meet the Bonus Army's demands, and President Herbert Hoover ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to force them out. Police and military personnel, including a tank unit led by Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, attacked them on July 28, 1932, razing and setting their shelters ablaze.
Location: Anacostia Recreation Center, 1800 Anacostia Dr. SE
In the 1930s and '40s, Anacostia Pool — at the Anacostia Recreation Center — was for whites only. In June 1949, the Department of the Interior announced that it would be desegregated, but young black people who tried to swim in the pool were confronted by white people, culminating in race riots and violence on June 29, involving about 450 people. The pool was closed for the rest of the summer, reopening in 1950 to all swimmers — although white people mostly stopped going there.
Location: Next to parking lot of RFK Stadium
In the late summers at the turn of the 20th century, the marshes from Anacostia Bridge (at present-day 11th Street Bridge) up to Benning's horse racing track (now the site of the Mayfair Mansions Apartments, north of Benning Road) pounded with gunfire, as men went out before dawn in flat-bottomed boats to hunt rail, birds that lived among the dense, tall reeds, according to a 1900 account in a periodical called the Osprey. Concerned about excessive hunting and declining bird populations, Iowa Congressman John Lacey in 1900 introduced the Lacey Act, the “country's oldest national wildlife protection statute” that aimed, in part, to protect domestic game and birds.
Landfill fires and Kelvin T. Mock, and the Aquatic Gardens
Location: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE
Landfill fires and Kelvin T. Mock: In 1942, the D.C. government began using the land south of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens as a landfill, where trash was openly burned. In 1968, a 7-year-old African American boy, Kelvin Tyrone Mock, was playing on the landfill with friends when he was trapped and killed by the flames. After his death, open burning on the landfill was halted. Four years later, Kenilworth Landfill was closed and dedicated as Kenilworth Park.
Aquatic Gardens: In 1879, Civil War veteran and U.S. Treasury clerk Walter B. Shaw bought the land where Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is located and created a commercial water garden to sell water lilies and other aquatic plants -- a project later inherited by his daughter L. Helen Shaw Fowler and purchased in 1938 by the federal government. Each year the park hosts a lily and lotus festival. It was held this year in July, but Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens is worth exploring any time.