Sycamore Island is Recalled
in Historical Text

Review by Tryon Wells

Sycamore Islander, January 1999


A fascinating book for those who are inclined toward local history is a fine tome by William Offutt named Bethesda, A Social History. Wonderful anecdotal accounts and solid history describe a town that has been developing for a long time and in recent years become completely suburban where once it was mostly rural. Here is the passage in the book that describes the 1936 flood, and the only reference in the book to the Sycamore Island Club:

The flood of 1936, which left many people homeless, is also recalled for one daring rescue. More than fifty years after the event, Al Jamison remembered it clearly. He had come to the area in the 1920s as assistant pro at Bannockburn before moving down the road to work with Wiffy Cox at Kenwood, and he rented a room in Glen Echo.

I was in Glen Echo in the '36 flood. You could hear that water at night, the last night. I heard that roaring and got the hell out of there. They were getting people off the banks, and in the morning we were running all over in the fire trucks. And this woman was out there on that island off Glen Echo. They had told her not to go out there. She was a swimming instructor at the Shoreham, and she got stranded out there.

Next morning the water's up so high, she's setting on the roof with a board, a dog, and a newspaper. As the water came up she moved to a tree next to the house, put the board across the limbs and sat there with her dog and newspaper. And she kept going higher as the water rose. Finally it took the house down the river. And she's at the top limb and the water's a foot below her feet. They called the Navy and they sent up six sailors with a steel boat. And they looked it over and told the fire chief, "I'm not going to take a chance of losing six lives for one."

And here a couple of drunks from Cabin John were standing around, and one says, "I can get that gal off that tree." And the other says, "I'll bet you a case of beer your can't." "You've got a bet," the first one says. He goes up to Cabin John where he's got this row boat, and he comes down through the trees rowing backwards.

The bet was to take the woman off the tree and bring her in at Sycamore Island. So he gets her off the tree, lots of people are watching now, and gets her into the rowboat, and the dog, and comes in to shore with all the people there. And the drunk is there waiting and yells, "This is not Sycamore Island."

"It isn't?," he says. "Push me out again." He goes down to Sycamore Island with this gal. And the whole romance of this thing is she finally marries him.

The woman's name was Eva Dell Myers, and the man who got her out of the tree and married her a year later was William E. Swanson, an accountant from Cabin John. Swanson, described as a boatman with many years experience who had rowed on the varsity crew at college, and a younger man that Mr. Jamison forgot about, John McCann, did come down the roaring river at an estimated thirty miles an hour among the tree tops and amid the tumbling debris and rowed the woman to safety. There was nothing about a bet in the newspaper stories, and the word "drunk" was often lightly used when men from Glen Echo and Cabin John talked about each other in those days. They took pride in being called "river rats" and claimed that only out-of-towners ever drowned in the river or the canal.

The great flood of '36 almost wiped out the Sycamore Island Club, which had started in 1885 as a rather rowdy place for young men enjoy the summer and had become a retreat for canoeists and their families to boat, roast oysters, and play tennis.

It then had rules against firearms, alcohol and gambling and some forty stock-holding, dues-paying members. A letter from club secretary Rodger Gessford brought the bad news along with a reminder that the river had not reached such heights since 1889.

At this time, the flood waters at Sycamore are receding, but it seems quite certain that when in a few days they have dropped to a stage approaching normal, whatever is left of our club buildings will be scattered about the Island in wreckage. Practically all of the members' canoes had been moved into the clubroom, the highest point on the Island, but with the club-room torn loose and wrecked, it seems probable that most of the canoes and other personal property have been lost.

The secretary suggested that members who lost canoes "should be able to obtain one fairly reasonably in Georgetown -- possibly your own." Despite the ongoing Depression, members pledged loans totaling $3,525 by the time of the April issue of "The Sycamore Islander" and eventually paid $4,205 into the rebuilding fund. The new, steel reinforced clubhouse was finished by August 1936 and withstood the floods of 1937 and 1942. The Club, more Washingtonian than Bethesdan, with its consistently bright, tongue-in-cheek newsletter, is another amazing local survivor.