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Rock Creek Park: A short history

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Learn about this dense, leafy oasis in the nation’s capital

Photo via Shutterstock/Avner Ofer Photography

Concealed amongst the office buildings and monuments of Washington, D.C. is a 1,754-acre national park. The river valley, creeks, meadows, and rolling hills have been there for thousands of years, long before the United States and The Revolutionary War. Hopefully, with continued protection, they will be there for many generations to come. This is the story of Rock Creek Park.

It spans from Native Americans like the Anacostans to fur and tobacco traders to tenant farmers. It includes Jubal A. Early attacking Fort Stevens to President Theodore Roosevelt going on "scrambles" to his favorite Pulpit Rock. The contemporary significance of Rock Creek Park coincides with the story of a young nation.

As some may know, living conditions in the District were less than hospitable in the 1800s. Industrialization brought many things, good and bad. In the 1860s, sanitation became a concern. This was partly due to an intense heat index. Waves of humidity beat early citizens into a lethargic stupor. Mosquitoes orbited swampy areas with demonic fervor. They brought diseases and widespread discomfort. High temperatures lifted and intensified the stench that rose up in tendrils from the early drainage systems.

One sewer in particular, Tiber Creek, drained into the Potomac River near where the Washington Monument stands today. It was so close to the White House that it was capable of being smelled from the Lawn. As one might imagine, the odor may have wafted through the open windows of the Oval Office, making it difficult to sign executive orders.

As such, President Abraham Lincoln requested an expedition into D.C. and its surrounding areas. He wanted to find an unsullied, hospitable green region to develop his new presidential mansion. His searchers chose what we now know as Rock Creek Park. Needless to say, the new White House was never built, but many took note on the value of the land.

1890 marked the year of Rock Creek Park’s christening under President Benjamin Harrison. It is the third national park established in the U.S. behind only Yellowstone National Park and the Mackinac National Park. The architects of the park wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the land, and they accomplished their task beautifully. Their names were Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, sons to the illustrious Frederick Law Olmsted, who is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture.

They had big shoes to fill. Their father molded such modern wonders as Central Park, Elm Park, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In the Olmsted brothers’ report to the National Park Service, they remarked on the loveliness of the scenery as well as its potential as a place of recreation, oneness with the environment, and healing.

My favorite quote from the report is, "No matter how perfect the scenery of the park may be or may become, no matter how high it’s potential value, that value remains potential except insofar as it is enjoyed by large and ever larger numbers of people, poor and rich alike."

The Olmsted’s vision came true. The park is enjoyed by people of all shapes and colors and bankrolls. Anyone can bicycle from Peirce Mill all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial or hike the 32-plus miles of trails, or golf, or picnic, or ride horses, or play tennis. In warmer temperatures, visitors can meander under Key Bridge to the boat house where one can rent kayaks, canoes, and standup paddle boards. The possibilities that Rock Creek Park holds are about as eclectic as this country’s people.

I visited Rock Creek Park to do some more research. I wanted to see all of the amazing things I had been reading about. I walked the trails, visited the horse stables, and learned more of the park’s storied history. There were many people milling about, even in the cold. I decided to speak to some of the visitors to get their take on the park, its significance, and why it is a special place of refuge for so many in the Nation’s capital.

Photo via TrailVoice

I met a nice couple near the Nature Center, named Jim and Roxanne Eckhoff. They often visit the park to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. They brought their Australian Shepherd, Daisy, with them. I looked on as the dog ran around unencumbered, chasing a ball and devouring treats, rewards for her good behavior.

The Eckhoffs are D.C. residents who have been frequenting the park since the early 2000s. They have seen a lot of interesting things, Jim remarked. Jim told me how the area was usually teeming with dog lovers and families. He said most park goers, both young and old, came out in the spring when it’s warmer.

When asked why he thought the park was special, Jim said it was the versatility it offered. "There is something for everyone here," he said, adding that the park offers the ability to meet people from all walks of life, and "it’s really just a great place to go to relax and chill out."

Next, I headed to the Nature Center to learn more about the park’s ecosystem. I was surprised to learn about the diverse abundance of wildlife in the park. Rock Creek is an outdoor zoo. It provides habitat for thousands of creatures, a few of which are coyotes, turtles, bald eagles, hawks, black rat snakes, woodpeckers, great horned owls, and tiger swallowtail butterflies.

I continued surveying the exhibits at the nature center until I stumbled upon the planetarium. I soon met with Park Ranger Jeff Reardon. He had just finished giving a presentation, called "Seasonal Night Sky." In this presentation, he told American Indian stories about the stars and constellations, about the space above which he calls "nature above nature."

Jeff started his work in Florida at a Civil War fort, named Fort Dupont. He later transferred to Rock Creek Park after accepting a position as Park Ranger. He has been in the nation’s capital ever since and has been a Ranger in Rock Creek Park for seven years and counting. When I asked Jeff what made this park special, his eyes lit up and he remarked that it was "an urban oasis."

He said that the park is very important for Washingtonians because it provides citizens with "a tripod of opportunity." Visitors enjoy "nature," he said as he motioned expansively with his hands. "As you can see by looking around you, [there is] recreation and culture."

The culture aspect includes all of the historical remnants in the park like Pierce Mill. Jeff explained that there were 68 forts built in and around D.C. during the Civil War to protect the District. Rock Creek Park held a few of the fortifications, including Fort Stevens and Fort DeRussy.

As I walked out of the Nature Center, I saw couples lounging under trees as well as joggers and families. I saw the Eckhoffs with their dog, Daisy. In a city where everything is always moving and changing, there is a place that continues—for the most part—to be the same. Its magnetism has attracted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to the Olmsteds to the untold historical figures of the future that we are yet to know. It provides a place of recreation for everyone looking to reconvene with nature.

Rock Creek Park reflects many years of human history. As long as it is protected, it will be a refuge to anyone looking for a quiet escape and a moment of silent reflection.

Rock Creek Park [National Park Service]

The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C. [Official Website]

Frederick Law Olmsted [Official Website]

Teddy Roosevelt's Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. [YouTube]

Rock Creek Park

Beach Drive NW, Washington, DC 20015 Visit Website