Yes, People Did Swim in the Anacostia –and They Will Again

September 4, 2023 | Elizabeth O’Gorek | HillRag
Photo: E. O’Gorek | Art: Jay Yen for CCN

Growing up in Hillbrook in the 1950s and 60s, Dennis Chestnut learned to swim in the Anacostia River. As a little boy, he would negotiate the smoldering trash fires of the Kenilworth Landfill to the Watts Branch and the east branch of the river.

The city was segregated, and Chestnut is Black. So there were few swimming pools he and his friends could go to, none of them on the east side of town. It was safer than negotiating the majority-White Fort Dupont neighborhood that lay between his home and the pool near Anacostia Park; on one occasion, he and his friends had to run a gauntlet of (glass) bottles and rocks as the passed through.

The Watts Branch alternative was a sanctuary, he said. “We felt that it was our local beach!” he told the Anacostia Waterfront Trust in 2018. “We felt very free, as children should feel.”

Now a civic ecologist and environmentalist who was also founding executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC, Chestnut said that up through the mid-1960s, the river was used for swimming, fishing, boating and baptism by people living along either side of the Anacostia.

But by 1971, DC Municipal Code included a new law: it was illegal to swim in either of the District’s two rivers. The Anacostia had been polluted by a century of industrial waste, stormwater runoff and sewage.

A  one-time event — Splash! —organized by the Anacostia Riverkeeper for July was delayed after heavy rainfall affected water quality. That may also have been impacted by simultaneous work on the new northeast boundary tunnel.

But the Riverkeepers just announced that the swim event has  been rescheduled for Sept 23.

It will be the first legal swim in the Anacostia River in 52 years. In 2018, the law was amended to allow the Director of District’s Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) to grant permission for a one-day swimming event on the Anacostia River.

Chestnut’s work is part of the reason Splash! is possible. But advocates have no intention of stopping there. It is a marker of how far efforts to clean up the once notoriously polluted river have come. Advocates say this event is also a harbinger of a much nearer future in which District residents will be able to go down to the river and jump right in. The city has set a goal of making its waterways swimmable and fishable by 2032.

But was there a time when people did just jump right in? When and where did people swim in the Anacostia River ?

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Read the full article at the link below to learn about the history of swimming in the Anacostia, the hard work by advocacy groups like us that has helped improve water quality, and what the future of a swimmable Anacostia could mean.