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By Angus PhillipsPhotographs by Landon Nordeman

At the Maine Avenue Fish Wharf in Washington, D.C., you can haggle over the price of crabs or hang out with the neighboring "live-aboards," just minutes from the Capitol.

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Much has changed in Washington since Elisha Pruitt opened Pruitt's Seafood in 1933. But the Potomac tide still lifts and lowers the fish barges twice a day, and Washingtonians still crowd the waterfront to barter with fishmongers from another world. And Pruitts are still there, hawking seafood. On a bright summer morning Elisha's grandson Stewart stares up from one of his 60-foot-long (20-meter-long) barges where fish and shellfish in a hundred or so varieties lie arrayed on shaved ice. The tide is out and customers tower over him. A plump woman in stretch pants and golden necklaces glowers down. "How much for the crab legs?" she asks, pointing to a five-pound (two-kilogram) pack.
"Thirty-foiv," says Pruitt, in the soft accent of his home, where "time" is "toim" and "tide" is "toid."
"It was 25 last week," says the woman.
"No, ma'am, never 25."
"I'll give you $30," she says.
"Thirty-two," he says.
"Thirty-one," says she.
Pruitt cocks his head and, with a twinkle in his eye, asks, "Ain't you the girl I hugged last week?" So the deal is sealed in compromise and roguish goodwill, as it's been for a century and more at the foot of 11th and 12th Streets Southwest.
The floating fish market is a corner of Washington tourists don't see, even though it's less than a ten-minute walk from the Tidal Basin and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a few minutes more from the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. No signs point to the block-long market. Locals battle gridlocked roads and swarms of buyers on weekends to haul away live or steamed crabs, oysters, and fish of all kinds, all seasons.
The closest most out-of-towners get are the massive, modern waterfront restaurants, just south of the barges, which lure tourists by the busload. Between the market and the restaurants, the Gangplank Marina and the Capital Yacht Club provide slips for around 400 boats, including a hundred-plus houseboats and cruisers lived on year-round, some of them homes to government workers who forsake apartments for life on the water.
The modern restaurants and marina arose on a half-mile stretch of the Washington Channel after urban renewal in the 1960s ("urban removal," some called it) destroyed frame buildings, ramshackle shacks, and rambling eateries. Tour-boat wharves, town house clusters, and a small shopping mall round out today's sanitized Southwest waterfront. Yet the funky fish wharf lives on in olfactory glory.

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Chelton Evans, owner of Jessie Taylor Seafood, still remembers the last time he ran his boat from his hometown in the Chesapeake Bay with a day's worth of seafood to sell. It was November 22, 1963, a day etched into the memory of many Americans. "We'd come up to get oysters in Annapolis. After we docked, we heard that President Kennedy had just been shot. It was terrible, no one could believe it."

Evans's dramatic day was also an end to his own history of running the Potomac River, one that began when he was 12 years old. "We'd leave Smith Island on a Wednesday and go up the river to buy crabs, fish, and oysters from the fish houses. Then we'd try and dock in D.C. Sometimes the dock would get so crowded, we'd have to wait for the other boats to sell out before we could sell our fish." Sunday night, Evans and his crew would head back down the river, arriving at Smith Island early Monday morning.

But since 1963 the boats have been tied permanently to the docks at the Maine Avenue Fish Wharf, and steel barges hold them firmly in place. Bridges and roads now make trucking a cheaper alternative to running the river. "The D.C. Fish Wharf is still a unique place," Evans says. "I've been to other wharves in the country, even to San Francisco, and D.C.'s still impresses me more with its selection of seafood."

—Christy Ullrich

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Related Links
Explore DC: Gateway to the Nation's Capital
Discover the history of Washington, D.C. Links to information about presidents, monuments, the Library of Congress and more.

Southwest D.C.
Explore Southwest D.C., "the best kept secret in Washington." Provides links to local and upcoming events.

National Park Service
Explore the rich history of the monuments erected in Washington, D.C.


Finn, Jimmy. "Court, Congress added to legend of Fish Market," Denver Post, August 3, 1986.

Forgey, Benjamin. "A Taste of the Real Waterfront," Washington Post, January 22, 1994

King, Wayne. "Washington Talk, Briefing: Other Fish to Fry," New York Times, June 14, 1986.

Spencer, Duncan. "In the Neighborhood," Roll Call, September 23, 1993.


NGS Resources
Thompson, John. National Geographic Traveler Washington, D.C. National Geographic Society, 2002.

Roberts, Cokie. "Urban Spaces," National Geographic Traveler (October 2001), 36-38.

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Bausum, Ann, and George W. Bush. Our Country's Presidents, National Geographic Books, 2001.

Winkler, Peter. "Star-Spangled Banner," National Geographic World (July 2000), 26-27.

Dickson, Paul, and Douglas E. Evelyn. On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C. National Geographic Books, 1999.

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Boston to Washington, Circa 1830, National Geographic magazine map supplement, July 1994.

Park, Edwards. "3 Days at the Smithsonian," National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1991), 68-75.

Hall, Alice J. "L'Enfant's Washington," National Geographic (August 1991), 122-134.

"America Remembers," National Geographic (May 1985), 552-553.

Mitchell, Henry. "Washington, D.C.: Hometown Behind the Monuments," National Geographic (January 1983), 84-125.

Aikman, Lonnelle Davison. "The Living White House," National Geographic (November 1966), 593-643.

Graves, William. "Washington: The City Freedom Built," National Geographic (December 1964), 735-781.

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