Imagine you’re visiting Mount Vernon. You’ve toured George Washington’s home and walk out to the back porch. You look out across the quiet Potomac River and there, on the Maryland shore, you see a sewage treatment plant or rows of housing developments. Jarring as this seems, this was almost the fate for the land that is now Piscataway Park. In the 1950s and 1960s, the area around Washington, D.C. was rapidly being developed. In 1954, developers proposed a housing development whose sewage would be dumped into the Potomac River. Shortly after, Standard Oil planned to build an oil storage tank farm on the site. The proposal that finally pushed the community over the edge was from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) to build a sewage treatment plant at Mockley Point, a sacred place for the Piscataway people and one of the most important archeological sites in the nation.
Each of these proposals represented a threat to the environment, to historic properties, and to sacred lands. Fortunately, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Piscataway Natives, Alice Ferguson, and other residents came together to create the Piscataway Park and protect it from future development efforts.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) was the first national historic preservation organization in the United States and is still active today. During the 1960s, the Association supported the creation of Piscataway Park. They wanted visitors to enjoy the same view that George Washington enjoyed, and worried about the effects of development on the historic nature of Washington’s property. The concern over the view was not unfounded, as Washington and his guests often remarked on its beauty.
"No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this…on one of the finest Rivers in the world." -George Washington 1793
U.S. Representative Francis Payne Bolton, vice-regent of the MVLA, played a key role in the campaign to protect the Maryland shore. In 1957 she purchased a large tract of land and used it to create the Accokeek Foundation, which still protects the land today. Bolton also campaigned for the park in the halls of Congress.
Another woman at the forefront of Piscataway preservation was Alice Ferguson. In 1922, Ferguson and her husband Henry bought 130 acres of farmland along the Potomac River. Over the following years, the Fergusons bought hundreds of acres of the surrounding land to conserve it. They fought off development projects and sold only to like-minded individuals. These landowners came together to create the Moyaone Reserve, a conservation-focused community that remains active today. After Alice's death, Henry continued her legacy by creating the Alice Ferguson Foundation. The Foundation later donated land to the creation of Piscataway Park, including the Fergusons’ home, Hard Bargain Farm.
While rarely acknowledged in early documentation of the park, members of the Piscataway Tribe were another major stakeholder group in the creation of the park. They have been the stewards of the land for generations and continue to practice their traditional ways of life. The Tribe had endured conflicts with federal and state governments but ultimately decided that supporting the creation of the park would give them the best chance to protect their home.
The idea to create a national park was first suggested as early as 1955. At the time, the National Park Service was hesitant to take on the responsibility. The NPS was already responsible for many properties with few resources to care for them. Instead, early conservation efforts relied on the actions of private individuals. Some people, like the Fergusons and Representative Bolton, were wealthy enough to buy the land with the intent to preserve it. Others who already lived in the area agreed to residential covenants that restricted development. Scenic easements, binding agreements that restrict the use of the land, were also a popular solution. Piscataway Park was not the first national park to use scenic easements, but it was the first to use them so extensively.
Before a national park could be established, Congress needed to authorize and appropriate funds to buy the land. Representative Bolton championed a bipartisan bill to approve the creation of the park. On October 4, 1961, President Kennedy signed the bill authorizing the Park Service to acquire the land. However, this bill did not appropriate the funding necessary to buy the land. Some allotments and scenic easements were donated, but the park would not be complete until 1968. The park expanded to its current size in 1974, when Marshall Hall and the Fort Washington Marina were added.
Piscataway Park Today
Today, the National Park Service and its partners manage Piscataway Park. Many of the groups that played key roles in the creation of the park remain active in its management. The Accokeek Foundation stewards approximately 200 acres of the park and serves over 20,000 visitors per year. The Alice Ferguson Foundation manages 300 acres of park land, 214 acres of which are owned by the Park Service. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is less involved with the day-to-day operations of the park but remains invested in the view of the Maryland shore. Planning meetings for Mount Vernon often include the Park Service and its partners. Moving forward, the Park Service hopes to continue to build connections and improve collaboration with the local Tribes.
Piscataway Park is significant for the natural and cultural resources that it protects. It was also vital to the advancement of preservation law in the United States. Piscataway was the first unit of the National Park System deemed significant for its general scenic character rather than for on-site landmarks. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 expanded on this concept. Today, the law provides guidelines for the protection of other significant vistas and landscapes.