Last weekend, we set out for Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, which is located in the district close to the border with Maryland. I doubt we’d have heard of it if we hadn’t received a little book called Secret Washington DC, as a gift. And it is a secret, because there weren’t many people, especially for a National Park, although to be fair it was one of Washington’s classic hot and humid summer days.
Kenilworth is the last remaining tidal marsh in the city and is home to the most amazing water lily and lotus flower gardens, while a walk along the boardwalk takes you past other marsh-loving plants like wild rice, cattail reeds, arrow arum, cardinal lobelia, spatterdock, swamp rose-mallow, swamp milkweed and purple loosestrife. We also saw a half dozen great white egrets, an osprey, a lesser scaup and some other small unidentified birds.
We owe this urban delight to WB Shaw and his daughter Helen. A native of Maine, he settled in Washington in 1879 and became an enthusiastic water gardener. Starting with some water lilies he brought from Maine in 1882, he had such success that he eventually turned his hobby into a business and began to sell water lilies. His daughter delivered the water lilies all over the city and over time Shaw’s Lily Ponds became one of the largest aquatic plant nurseries in the country. When WB Shaw died in 1921, Helen continued to run the business on her own, adding other plants to the garden which she opened to the public. Many came for Sunday picnics, which at the time were enormously popular. Helen was also a trained artist who painted watercolors of the garden.
In 1901 a decision was taken by Congress to develop the ‘swampland’ along the Anacostia river, an ambitious reclamation project that included dredging the river, building a seawall and using the sediment to fill in the marshland behind the wall. Because the river had silted up, it was seen as a necessity to prevent malaria.
The project took decades and although Helen tried to prevent it, it went ahead and much of the wetlands were destroyed. In 1938 the National Park Service took over the site and opened it as a public park. In the 1960s, changing attitudes saw the Anacostia area recognized as a unique habitat for flora, fauna and migrating birds and a plan was implemented to begin restoration and preservation of the wetlands. Today Kenilworth is part of the Anacostia Park which runs along the river from South Capitol Street to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Anacostia Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization that works to restore the river and introduce it to the surrounding community, runs boat trips, waterway cleanups and catch and release Friday Night fishing events.
The name Anacostia is derived from the local Indian tribe the Nacotchtanks, who farmed, fished and hunted in this area until the arrival of the European settlers. After John Smith explored this area as part of his mapping of the Chesapeake in 1608, it was not long before settlers arrived and began to claim large tracts of land along both the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers on which they grew tobacco. By 1670, the Nacotchtanks had been driven out of the area by settlers or had succumbed to disease. In 1800 tobacco went out of production along the river when it was discovered that it depleted the soil. The riverside plantations were then broken up to make way for the development of residential communities that sprang up to house workers at the Navy Yards which opened in 1799, on the other side of the river. For decades the Anacostia River was horribly polluted by industrial waste, agricultural run-off and poor sewage facilities, but today it not only supports an abundance of wildlife, it may soon be clean enough to swim in.