26 November 2020

Lincoln Memorial, 1916

I find this photo particularly fascinating because of the absence of the reflecting pool (completed in 1923).  This image better reflects the fetid, malaria-infested swamp that Washington D.C. was in its early history*.  This is how it looked when my parents were born, so this is not ancient history.

I was born in Washington D.C., and some of my earliest memories were of visits to the reflecting pool and especially to the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin.  Here I am at the reflecting pool in 1949 -

- I think facing toward the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument faintly visible in the distant haze.  Dad was in the Navy, stationed in D.C., so we lived across the river in Arlington.  An interesting place to begin life.

*Addendum: Reader Lones Smith found an article debunking the myth that Washington was originally swampy land.  I will gracefully defer to The Smithsonian.  But there was malaria and yellow fever in the region (and there still are 50-100 cases reported per year).


  1. People think of the National Mall as a stagnant place, but it actually quite dynamic. At a glacial pace. New monuments pop up every decade or so, and the same goes for new museums. Overall, that changes things faster than one would suspect.

    Recent examples are the African American Smithsonian Museum and the MLK Memorial. A bit before that came the Native American Smithsonian Museum, and soon to Eisenhower's Memorial will be finished. Oops, as I googled when, I found that it opened in September. https://eisenhowermemorial.gov/ I missed that in the COVID lockdown.

    Anyway, the National Mall has much more to offer than many people think. While the first time people visit DC, they should definitively go for the highlights, I strongly recommend doing a little bit of research if you ever come a second time. There are so many hidden gems on the Mall.

    One of my personal favorites is Signer's Island, along the reflecting pool. However busy the Mall is with whatever demonstration, it's always quiet there. It's a little oasis hidden in plain sight. The Botanical garden is a close second. And the Roosevelt Memorial is good if you want to stretch your legs, just avoid the tour groups. Finally, sunset behind the Lincoln Memorial over Arlington Cemetery and Rosslyn can be absolutely spectacular, if you catch the right night.

    And did you know that the back of the Lincoln Memorial was designed for official boat arrivals of dignitaries? Never really happened, but remember that before DC was created, George Town (with space) in Maryland and Alexandria in Virginia were fiercely competing harbors. And it's also pretty much where the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (that was never finished) ends up in the Potomac. All in all an important nautical place.

  2. I lived in DC for ten years, in McLean and then Annandale. The thing that surprised me, aside from the nightmarish traffic, was the absolute abundance of really smart, caring people. Where I grew up in the Midwest, it was implied that DC was just politicians, lobbyists and military. But it's full of researchers, analysts, scientists, all kinds of truly amazing people! These days it's more a rainforest than a swamp.

    1. it was implied that DC was just politicians, lobbyists and military.

      It is.

      But it's full of researchers, analysts, scientists, all kinds of truly amazing people!

      Who says lobbyists and the military can't be amazing researchers, analysts and scientists? Who do you think invented the internet?

      What did you think the researchers at NIST, NIH, ARL, NRL and NASA were doing? Oh and those at all the local universities, research institutes and let's not forget the Smithsonian and National Geographic? Those researchers aren't writing bills. That's what lobbyists are for. And they also need to know their shit if we don't want the country to be run by actual politicians.

    2. You interpreted my comment in the meanest possible way when I think we in fact agree completely.
      My point was that I always heard DC was a "swamp" because it was full of war hawks, corrupt politicians, and corporate groups lobbying to subvert democracy. When in fact, it contained all the examples you cite and then some. And all the people I met were honestly trying to improve/support society (of course I didn't work on politics, so I can't speak to that). Just wanted to share a story of personal growth in perspective while also illuminating why so many other midwesterners may think poorly of DC.

  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/draining-swamp-guide-outsiders-and-career-politicians-180962448/

    1. Interesting. I've amended the text accordingly. Thank you, Lones Smith.

  4. So is that where the saying, "Drain the swamp" originates?

  5. You looked adorable at the Mall.

    (And probably still do. I just don't have any photos from which to form a judgment.)

  6. I'd guess you're about 10 years older than my father, but he too was the son of a Navy man who grew up in Northern VA (Annandale). And now I live in Wisconsin. In addition to enjoying most of your posts, I find the familial parallels interesting.


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