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History

Two Decades of Non-Motorized Recreational Boating on the Anacostia

Site History

The current site of the Anacostia Community Boathouse, where the 11th Street Bridges cross the Anacostia River, is the original site of the historic 11th Street or Navy Yard Bridge. It has always served essential transportation and communications purposes, ever since the founding of Washington as the nation’s capital city. The bridge itself was one of three Anacostia bridges authorized by the Maryland legislature toward the end of the 18th century. It was guarded against British entry in 1814 and played an important role again in the Civil War.

The two buildings on the site were constructed by the U.S. Army’s District Engineer for the Federal City in the first quarter of the 20th century, making them now almost 100 years old. They have never been part of the Washington Navy Yard and have never been under the control of the Secretary of the Navy. Following the creation of Anacostia National Park in the 1930s, ownership of these two buildings was transferred from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and its National Park Service. With the advent of World War II they reverted to the War Department where they continued to be operated by the U.S. Army for military purposes until about 1972. These buildings served during WWII as R&D shops for the development of landing craft and subsequently became a U.S. Army Reserve Training Center for one of the Transportation Corps’ Boat Companies, which berthed its landing craft where ACBA now has its floating docks.

When the Army closed down the Reserve Training Center at this site in the early 1970s (after the end of the War in Vietnam), the Secretary of Defense returned these two buildings and the land to the Interior Department and its National Park Service. Since then they have been the property and responsibility of the Park Service. From 1985 until the current decade the buildings hosted the city’s Bridge Maintenance Division and miscellaneous other functions of the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) and the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The two spans of the 11th Street Bridges that straddle the two ACBA buildings were built in the 1960s and opened to traffic in 1965 and December 1970, respectively. They comprise the I-395 Anacostia River crossing, which seals off the Washington Navy Yard and the Anacostia River from most of the residential neighborhoods near both ends of these twin spans.

Early Efforts to Bring Youth Rowing to the Anacostia River

In late January 1988, shortly after the Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observances at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, leaders of the Anacostia community, many of them active in the Anacostia Coordinating Council, contacted Bob Day, a former oarsman then working at the U.S. Department of State. They said they would like to “try for something like” a rowing program on the Anacostia River for at-risk teenagers in their community.

Following this brief telephone conversation, a self-appointed committee of four had lunch together and hatched a dream—namely to bring crew as a sport to the Anacostia River—a river which had no rowing tradition and no facilities. By August 18, 1988, their new effort was incorporated in the District of Columbia as the Organization of Anacostia Rowing & Sculling. It is best known by its acronym as OARS, Inc. and has as its purpose “establishing and nurturing the sport of rowing, also known as crew, for the benefit of the community.” The OARS Board of Directors consists of a mix of adult leaders of the Anacostia community plus coaches and other leaders in the rowing community.

With an initial grant of $200, OARS chartered a bus and took a representative group of athletes from Anacostia Sr. H.S. to the Occoquan Reservoir in Lorton, Virginia for a day at the Scholastic National Rowing Championships, being held on the Occoquan in May 1988. The Anacostia students liked what they saw, but the OARS efforts to get a rowing team started at that school were unsuccessful. Dianne Dale, a founding member of OARS and President of the Anacostia Historical Society suggested that the effort be directed at Junior High students instead. She and Thomas Gore, now President of the Associates for Renewal in Education, both of them graduates of Anacostia High School, chauffeured kids from Frederick Douglass Jr. High to Thompson Boat House for early morning rowing instruction given by Al Villaret, Vice President of OARS and Head Crew Coach at Arlington's Yorktown Sr. High School.

This familiarization effort was a success and the rowers from Douglass Jr. High, led by their 8th grade novice coxswain, performed admirably in a demonstration row-by during the 1989 RiverFest on the Potomac. In the Spring of 1990 the Douglass rowers were joined by a group of rowers from J. Hayden Johnson Jr. High in Ward 8, where Dianne Dale had become the “I Have A Dream” Foundation coordinator. The Athletic Director at Johnson, John Melvin Garner, became directly involved and joined the OARS Board of Directors. Meanwhile Douglass Jr. High School was closed and all our eggs were in the Johnson basket for a couple of of years. The Johnson team even got some pretty good television coverage in May 1991, which resulted in some badly needed grant money to OARS.

This brief history is not the right place for an analysis of what it will take to make programs such as these more durable. ACBA’s officers and the leadership of its member organizations have continued these outreach efforts to establish rowing programs in the D.C. public schools. We especially aim our efforts at those D.C. public high schools within a reasonably short commuting distance of the Boathouse, such as Anacostia, Ballou, and Eastern High Schools, as well as others such as Dunbar, Woodson, and the new Phelps Architecture, Construction & Engineering H.S. located on the same campus with Spingarn Sr. H.S., another public high school having, like Dunbar, a long and proud tradition.

Capital Rowing Club Moves to the Anacostia

Capital Rowing Club began as a community rowing organization based out of Thompson Boat Center on the Potomac River. Thompson’s was an overcrowded facility, and as membership at Capital Rowing Club increased and programs expanded to include more diverse skill levels, the need for more equipment and space to grow became a severe limitation on the club. In 1995, Capital was invited by OARS to move its operations over to the Anacostia.

OARS saw this as way to increase rowing on the Anacostia River, and Capital recognized the excellent growth potential and superior rowing conditions that the Anacostia River presented. After the move occurred, the membership at Capital worked in partnership with OARS to improve the site. Hundreds of volunteer hours were contributed to building boat racks, improving docks, and creating a welcoming rowing facility underneath the 11th Street Bridges. Keeping in line with its community mission, Capital adopted the mission of OARS, and began offering “learn to row” programs for area citizens and students, with a particular emphasis on reaching out to students in the D.C. public schools, and to people who had not had access to rowing programs previously.

Collaboration with the National Park Service and the D.C. Government

From the very outset of its operations at the site in 1991, the Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling (OARS) and its Board of Directors coordinated every major initiative with the Superintendent of National Capital Parks East (NCP/E) and his staff, as well as with the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Planning (for coxswains’ points and lane markers on the bridge railings) and with the D.C. Department of Public Works (which permitted and facilitated the use of the site beginning in February 1991).

The OARS Board meetings were frequently held in the NCP/E Superintendent’s Conference Room with the Superintendent as an active participant in the discussions. He and all his successors in this position have been generous with guidance and most helpful in supporting the natural growth of rowing and paddling programs at the site and on the Anacostia. This support included guidance in developing high school racing programs on the Anacostia with Finish Line installations and spectator areas in Anacostia National Park. Their guidance included instructions on event permitting, safety practices during reconstruction of the Sousa Bridge in 1992-1993, and what could and could not be done at the site, including most helpful discussions of what communities we should be serving at a community boathouse located in a National Park.

This helpful guidance and instruction was largely unwritten and delivered in person to OARS (beginning at this site in 1991), Capital Rowing Club (arriving at the site in 1995), the National Capital Area Women’s Paddling Association and the Anacostia Watershed Society. These four organizations, all of which have been recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as Section 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations, were the founding members of the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association.

The government of the District of Columbia was also very supportive of these initiatives, and welcomed Capital Rowing Club as a partner of OARS. Having worked with OARS to initially establish the rowing facility, the city government was pleased to see its investment grow and expand. ACBA has developed a strong working relationships with DDOT, the D.C. entity that administers ACBA’s lease. A representative of DDOT sits on ACBA’s Board of Directors, and major site renovations are coordinated with and approved by DDOT. We have also been able to accommodate work on the bridges by communicating in advance about project needs. Our site allows ample “swing space,” in which boat and equipment storage and program operations can be shifted.

ACBA’s Lease with the D.C. Department of Transportation

By 2002, ACBA had demonstrated its ability to sustain numerous non-motorized recreational boating programs for community-based rowing and paddling club programs and for scholastic programs. In order to support this success and future growth, additional storage space was needed, especially indoor storage. ACBA member organizations had started to make large investments in new equipment that would provide participants with a safer and more enjoyable recreational experience. This new equipment would deteriorate quickly in value and quality if left exposed to the elements.
 
Accordingly, with the approval of the National Park Service, the District in 2002 began to lease parts of the site to ACBA for recreational purposes, recognizing more formally the long understood value of non-motorized recreation on the Anacostia to the community and to the environmental restoration of the river. The initial lease included the building ACBA now uses as its Boathouse, and associated land. The D.C. Department of Public Works was initially designated to oversee and administer the lease, but as a result of a later re-organization of the D.C. Government the lease is now administered by the D.C. Department of Transportation.

ACBA’s programs and membership continued to grow. In 2004, ACBA added several new member organizations, including American University Crew, Bishop Ireton High School Rowing, and D.C. Strokes Rowing Club. The increase in the number of rowing and paddling programs simultaneously running on a daily basis, both morning and night, from February to November, made sorely evident the absence of support facilities such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and heated indoor areas. ACBA therefore applied to the District of Columbia to extend its lease to the Second Building and convert it into a community clubhouse for use by ACBA and other community organizations. In 2005, the District leased the remainder of the site, including the “Second Building,” to ACBA.

ACBA’s lease, and the 2005 amendment to the lease incorporating the Second Building, is signed directly with the District of Columbia. Consequently, the transfer of ownership of the underlying land from the National Park Service to the District of Columbia will not invalidate or void this lease. ACBA’s lease does expire in August 2010. As discussed below, ACBA requires a long-term lease, at least on the order of 20 years, in order to support necessary capital investment in the site.