Historical Vignette 048 - The Corps' Connection to the Washington, D.C., Tidal Basin and its Beloved Cherry Trees

Beginning in the 1880s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transformed the unsightly Potomac Flats in Washington, D.C., by dredging the river channel, dumping the spoil on the Flats, thus creating new land to the south of the Mall. To spread the spoil, Washington District Engineer Maj. Peter C. Hains used methods developed in levee work on the Mississippi River. In 1897 Congress dedicated some 600 acres of reclaimed land, henceforth called West Potomac Park and East Potomac Park, ordering that it be "forever held and used as a park for the recreation and pleasure of people."

Development of the land began in 1901 under Engineer Col. Theodore A. Bingham, who headed the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. The Washington Engineer District transferred to his control a parcel of land between the Tidal Basin and the Monument grounds and Bingham submitted an estimate for its improvement. Bingham included plans for drives, Japanese gardens, nurseries, polo grounds, athletic and military parade fields, and an electric fountain for the Basin in his grand scheme for the area. Bingham believed the park would provide fresh air and places of recreation for residents and serve as an "emerald setting for the beautiful city." Following Park Commission Plans, he raised the revetment wall along the Tidal Basin, cleared and graded the area, and built a 50-foot-wide macadam drive along the east side of the Basin. Workmen cleared away mounds of rubbish and brush, planted trees, and seeded lawns. In 1908 Congress voted money for a riverside drive from the basin inlet to 26th Street, and extended North B Street―the future Constitution Avenue―west as a park roadway to the Potomac.

Horse-drawn carriages carry passengers along the new drive
at the Tidal Basin, early 1900s

On 25 March 1912 final work began on one of the best-known Engineer improvements, as more than 3,000 flowering cherry trees, a gift from Tokyo to Washington, arrived to replace an earlier shipment of diseased trees. On the afternoon of 27 March, the First Lady, Mrs. William Howard Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two cherry trees beside the Tidal Basin, where eleven years of care had created a perfect setting. Workers from the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, headed by Engineer Col. Spencer Cosby, proceeded to carefully lay out and plant 1,800 Yoshino cherry trees around the Basin. The remaining trees, of eleven other cherry tree varieties, were later planted on the White House grounds and throughout the city. Historically, the Yoshino cherry tree species enjoys a life span of about 40 years. Amazingly, an estimated 125 (or about 4 percent) of the original trees, including the first two planted, are now 90-years-old and still dazzling visitors in springtime.

Peter Hains portrait   Theodore Bingham portrait   Spencer Cosby portrait
Peter C. Hains (as Maj. Gen.)   Theodore A. Bingham (later Brig. Gen.)   Col. Spencer Cosby


In recognition of the long Engineer endeavor to create and embellish Potomac Park, the name Hains Point was chosen in 1917 for the southernmost tip of East Potomac Park, for Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Peter Hains, the engineer who raised it from the waters. The Corps' work in Washington demonstrates what engineering can achieve to provide improved recreation and beauty for crowded city dwellers and visiting tourists from around the world.

cherry blossoms at tidal basin

Cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.

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April 2002