“One may hardly reach Bladensburg with a canoe at low tide.”
–Henry Talbott, “Fishing Up and Down the Potomac: The Eastern Branch,” Forest and Stream, May 12, 1898.
"Washington and Vicinity," U.S. Geological Survey, 1929.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence that Native Americans were attracted to the head of the Anacostia. Indeed the name Anacostia comes from the word anaquash, meaning “village trading center.” By the mid-18th century, the trans-Atlantic tobacco economy, which enriched Bladensburg, also sowed the seeds of its decline. Unsustainable farming practices caused excessive runoff, which then clogged the stream with silt. Navigation became increasingly difficult and the port declined until the river was declared closed for commercial activity. The last large ship left Bladensburg in 1835 carrying a cargo of 199 hogsheads of tobacco and pine plank.
A constricted channel also led to damaging floods. As the Washington region urbanized, the river suffered further degradation when sewage, industrial waste, garbage, and runoff from suburban lawns created a toxic mix of pollution.
Despite its decline as a river, the Anacostia has proven resilient and attractive to those who appreciated its unique character. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the Anacostia marshes became the haunt of nature lovers, hunters and fishers. The Army Corps of Engineers responded to flood risks by altering the historic channel of the river in and around Bladensburg. But the drive to convert the Anacostia into an efficient drainage system was mitigated by other government initiatives, such as the creation of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and the restoration of wetlands accessible by a riverside bicycle trail.
Today, the prospects for the Anacostia River are improving. Local citizens and grassroots organizations are working with government agencies to undo the damage of the past and return the river to a more natural state.