From pastoral beginnings to industrial heydays, L’Enfant’s early vision to urban renewal, fish market to cultural center, the Southwest Waterfront has always been an important part of Washington, DC’s story.
Washington D.C. sits on the ancestral lands of the Anacostans (also documented as Nacotchtank), and over time neighboring the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples. Long before the location was first recorded and mapped out by Captain John Smith in 1608, what is now known as the Southwest Waterfront was settled by first peoples who fished and farmed along the shores of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Early European Settlements
As more white settlers came across the Atlantic, they began building extensive plantations along the waterfront. Among the most notable landholders of that time were Notley Young, who owned most (800 acres) of what is now Southwest, as well as Daniel Carroll of Duddington.
The Establishment of the District, 1791
Under the direction of President George Washington, who envisioned the federal city as both a political capital and maritime center, city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the street layout of what is now Southwest with a major inland seaport and incorporated a maritime community extending from the Anacostia River to Georgetown.
Early Development of Southwest
In addition to being associated with military and civic activities, Southwest Washington was one of the first areas of private development in the District. Early in the 19th century, it enjoyed popularity as a site for fine residences and businesses, including the opening of the Municipal Fish Market in 1805. Due to its navigability by the major rivers, the Tiber and James creeks, and the railroad tracks, the Southwest Waterfront became the principal commercial waterfront of the city in the 1820s and 1830s.
"Opened in 1805, The Municipal Fish Market is the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States, 17 years older than New York City’s Fulton Fish Market."
Civil War and the Waterfront
During the Civil War, maritime activity and the wharves were appropriated for military purposes, transforming the waterfront into a staging area of troop embarkation, complete with barracks, hospitals, and supply depots. New wharves and warehouses were also built to accommodate the military’s shipping needs. And Water Street was paved for military traffic leading from the gun and powder factory at the Arsenal on Greenleaf Point north along the waterfront to the historic Long Bridge.
African-American History in Southwest
Leading up to the Civil War, many people of color—those still enslaved as well as some freed individuals—lived and worked here, and some helped build the original wharves. After the war, the area’s affordable housing and labor opportunities attracted thousands of people who were freed from slavery, and a close-knit community with many rich and storied traditions developed in this neighborhood along the waterfront.
Creating the Waterfront
Before the 1800s, the Southwest Waterfront formed the eastern bank of the Potomac River, but sediment accumulated as farming increased, making the river hard to navigate and prone to flooding. In 1882, plans to dredge the river were approved, with materials deposited on nearby mudflats creating Potomac Park and establishing the Washington Channel as well as the Tidal Basin.
The Early 1900s
At the beginning of the 20th century, commercial activity along the waterfront was thriving, with the Southwest’s population peaking close to 35,000. However, conditions in the area were incredibly poor, with ramshackle residential buildings left over from the Civil War, narrow and often unpaved streets, impractical arrangements of slips and adjacent wharves, and the constant risk of fire due to wood construction and storage yards piled high with flammable materials.
During the 1930s, the Southwest Waterfront underwent a renaissance, as plans to beautify the harbor were realized. The waterfront would continue its successful cargo business, supported by the municipal fish market and farmer’s market. As part of this movement to “give the city back its waterfront,” Water Street’s name was changed to Maine Avenue in 1938 and plans were developed to transform it into a 160-foot boulevard.
Despite beautification efforts, residential areas and the population decreased, crime and poverty began to rise, and the area’s reputation suffered greatly. In 1945, the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) was created and its urban renewal efforts saw the displacement of approximately 1,500 businesses and 23,000 residents, ultimately leading to the construction of the Southwest Freeway, the relocation of Maine Avenue, a waterfront promenade, and multiple parks.
America’s Oldest Operating Fish Market
The Municipal Fish Market was constructed on a site that has operated as a fish and public market since 1805. The original cluster of fish and oyster houses was replaced by the Municipal Fish Market’s impressive block-long brick structure in 1918, but was demolished in the 1960s as part of further redevelopment plans. Today, only the Lunch Room and the Oyster Shucking and Fish Cleaning Shed remain as reminders of the Municipal Fish Market’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, standing as anchors for the current open-air floating market.
"A visit to the Southwest Waterfront is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the past and newly energized present."
The Future of the Southwest Waterfront
Since this period of redevelopment, Southwest has remained mostly untouched. Now, over 50 years later, The Wharf has reconnected the District to the water. As the maritime front porch to the nation’s capital, The Wharf set a new standard for waterfront urban development and has become DC’s premier destination for water activities, dining, shopping, and living, along with a wide variety of live music, cultural events, and festivals.
Enjoy the freshest fish from one of the country’s oldest fish markets. Oysters on the half shell. Blue crabs by the bushel. Whole fishes caught that morning. And a low-key atmosphere that makes everything taste even better. Stop by for the food or the fishmongers—the Municipal Fish Market never disappoints.More Info
The Wharf is your launchpad for all kinds of water activities—from leisure cruises and kayak tours to sailing lessons and paddleboarding, the Southwest Waterfront makes it easy to play on the river. Plus, our water taxi might just be the fastest way to get to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, or National Harbor.Explore the Waterfront