National Capital Parks
A History
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Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1867-1925

By the act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 466), the Office of the Commissioner of Public Buildings was abolished, and the Chief Engineer of the United States Army was delegated to perform all duties required by law of the Commissioner. In accordance with this law, the Chief Engineer appointed General N. Michler Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds. [19] The legal continuity of the office was preserved as the Officer in Charge of Public Buildings and Grounds possessed the same powers as did the Federal Commissioners of 1791. As the city of Washington expanded the work of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds became increasingly complex, and the Officer in Charge was assigned numerous additional powers and duties. Military Aide to the President was included among his many duties.

Federal Control of Parks clearly defined

On July 1, 1898 (30 Stat. 570), Congress vested in the Municipal Commissioners of the District of Columbia the jurisdiction and control of street parking and placed the parks of the District of Columbia under the exclusive control of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army. This act simply clarified the Federal character of the National Capital Parks which had always been under Federal control. In 1898 it was realized that the parks should be administered along National lines, because they belonged to the whole Nation. Following this clarification, great improvements were initiated in the park development of Washington.

It should be remembered that from 1802 the city of Washington had been under two separate governments — that of the Federal Government and that of the local or Municipal Government. Surveyors of the city had been employed from the very beginning of the Nation's Capital. A clear distinction was always preserved by Congress between those surveyors under the Federal Government and those under the Municipal Government. [20] The latter were vested with authority from the municipality and not from Congress, and their activity was limited to work on private property only. The United States City Surveyor represented the Federal Government, and was under the direct control of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. By the act of January 12, 1899 the United States City Surveyor was designated the guardian of all official maps, deeds, and original land records of the District of Columbia. [21] With the greatest of care the official records of the city were kept in Federal custody. Upon the establishment of The National Archives, certain official records of the office were deposited there for safe keeping.

Important Developments, 1867-1925

The development of the National Capital Parks during the years 1867 to 1925 was extensive and farsighted. To soldiers, Congressmen, and other travelers the Washington of 1865 was a "backwoods town" of unpaved streets rather than an impressive National Capital. Following the Civil War, there was considerable agitation for improvement of the National Capital. One step in the movement for improvement was the transfer of custody of the Public Buildings and Public Grounds to the Chief of Engineers, U. S. Army. [22] Until the famous McMillan plan of 1901, progress toward a planned development of the park system was rather slow. Nevertheless, certain important park developments in the National Capital did precede the McMillan plan, In the year 1871 a park commission was organized. This commission planted some 60,000 trees along the streets. [23] This practice followed in later years has made Washington a city of shady tree-lined avenues. On August 16, 1876, the offices of the Landscape Gardener and Public Gardener were merged into one, in order to better coordinate the landscaping of the Capital's parks. [24]

Rock Creek Park

An outstanding achievement in park development prior to 1900 was the establishment of Rock Creek Park. As early as 1866 General N. Michler had reported to the United States Senate on the suitability of the valley of Rock Creek as a public park. [25] By the act of September 27, 1890 (26 Stat. 492—95), Congress authorized the establishment of Rock Creek Park as a national park. A Commission was created composed of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army, Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia, and three private citizens appointed by the President of the United States. [26] This Commission purchased all the lands possible under the appropriation allotted. On December 13, 1894, the Commission formally turned over the area to the Board of Control of Rock Creek Park, which had been created by section 7 of the Park act. [27] The area acquired for the park contained 1,605.9 acres, and cost $1,174,511.45. [28] Since the original purchase additional lands have been acquired. The area of Rock Creek Park now comprises 1,737 acres.

Situated in the heart of the Nation's Capital, Rock Creek Park is one of the largest and most beautiful natural parks in the world. Such a keen observer as James Bryce was so impressed with the beauties of Rock Creek Park that he left us the following description:

Rock Creek — a winding, rocky glen, with a broad stream foaming over its stony bed and wild leafy woods looking down on each side, where you not only have a carriage road at the bottom, but an inexhaustible variety of footpaths, where you can force your way through thickets and test your physical ability in climbing up and down steep slopes, and in places scaling the faces of bold cliffs, all that you have in Rock Creek Park. [29]

Besides its natural beauty and geological significance, Rock Creek Park is an area rich in human history. In the early nineteenth century many mills were located along the stream. One of these historic mills, the Pierce Mill, has been preserved, and operates today as it did over a century ago.

Differing from the Capitals of Europe, Washington was a planned city from the very beginning. The original plan of Pierre Charles L'Enfant was a logical and artistic design for the Nation's Capital. Due to the foresight of Washington and the planning ability of L'Enfant, the Capital city was provided with an adequate number of public reservations and parks. [30]

Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park

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Last Updated: 31-Jul-2003