Aug 4, 2023 - News

Remember When: People swam in the Tidal Basin

A large crowd of boys in bathing suits on the beach at Washington, DC's tidal basin, in the early twentieth century. The Washington Monument is visible in the background.

On the "beach." Photo: Bain News Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Today, the Tidal Basin is off-limits to swimmers but in the early 1900s it was basically the go-to pool.

How it worked: The Bathing Beach on the Tidal Basin opened in 1918, thanks to one very sweaty U.S. senator from Nebraska and an act of Congress, WETA reports.

  • Swimmers played water tennis, lounged on a makeshift beach, ate ice cream, and lined up for miles to visit. Bureaucrats even competed in diving contests!

Yes, but: The beach was only open to white people. Black swimmers were forced to swim in dangerous, undeveloped areas of the Potomac.

A group of women in bathing suits and swim caps at the bathing beach at the Tidal Basin in D.C. in the early 20th century.
Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Between the lines: The demise of the site began in the 1920s when Congress began to squabble over whether to allocate money for an African American beach along the Potomac, per WETA.

  • When funding for that project was eliminated, lawmakers "fearful" that Black swimmers would try to integrate the Tidal Basin pushed for it to close.

By 1925, the bathing beach was no more and some people turned to swimming in the Reflecting Pool.

A group of boys waving at camera while Playing with a toy sailboat in the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, July 7, 1926 .
Sailboat fun in the Reflecting Pool in July 1926. Photo: History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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