Administrative History-Renewal of Interest

Renewal of Interest

Not until 1883 was sufficient interest generated to revive the Rock Creek park proposal. In that year Capt. Richard L. Hoxie, assistant to the engineer commissioner of the District of Columbia, advocated a park embracing all the Rock Creek region in the District north of the Washington City limits, east of Tenleytown Road (present Wisconsin Avenue), and west of Rock Creek Church Road. Hoxie's plan had a utilitarian basis: the need to increase the city's water supply. To do this, he proposed a major dam across the creek just above Georgetown; it would create a four-mile-long reservoir submerging the portion of the valley later occupied by the National Zoological Park. [12]

That November three prominent civic leaders, William Wilson Corcoran, Justice William Strong, and Josiah Dent, communicated their support of a Rock Creek park to the District commissioners. Their letter recalled Michler's report and the early interest it had stimulated and cited the benefits to New York from Central Park, to Philadelphia from Fairmount Park, and to Baltimore from Druid Hill. Anticipated objections were countered with the "worthless lands" argument often used by early park proponents:

A large part of the grounds needed, though admirable for a public park, is worthless for agricultural or building uses, arid most of it is undesirable for residences, in its present condition; but the establishment of the park would add greatly to the value of the lands surrounding it, would make them very desirable for rural residences, and, in fact, would prove a bonus to the owners of such surroundings. It may be presumed, therefore, they would sell to the city such portions of their lands as may be included in the park for a very moderate price, or even donate them.... [13]

The correspondents urged the commissioners to seek congressional authority for park establishment, and they and others of their class lobbied Congress directly. On June 17, 1884, Sen. Thomas F. Bayard of Delaware introduced a joint resolution "upon the recommendation and continued application of gentlemen well known to us all, large property owners, men of intelligence, of character, and cultivation in this city " Explaining the background of the Michler survey, he said that Frederick Law Olmsted had been enlisted to help revive interest and had prepared the preamble of the resolution. It asserted that Rock Creek valley was ill-adapted to the extension of city streets, which would destroy "passages of scenery of extraordinary interest and public value." [14]

Bayard's resolution called for appointment of a joint committee of three senators and five House members. They would review the Michler report, make further surveys under the direction of the Secretary of War, and report back to the next session of Congress. Wholly tentative in nature, the resolution provided for no appropriation and no further action. It passed the Senate without difficulty, but as with the Brown bill 17 years before, the House did not act. [15]

On June 2, 1886, Sen. John J. Ingalls of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, introduced legislation "[t]o authorize the Commissioners of the District of Columbia to condemn land in Rock Creek for the purposes of a park, to be called Rock Creek Park." The bill would layoff a park not exceeding 1,000 feet wide from Massachusetts Avenue to the District line. The cost would be ascertained by agreements with landowners and condemnation proceedings where necessary; the District commissioners would then report to Congress so that it could decide whether to appropriate the necessary funds. The Senate again approved the bill, which was then referred to the House and recommended by its District committee. [16] But again it was kept from a vote on the House floor.

Senator Ingalls resurrected the measure in the following Congress, and Rep. Jonathan H. Rowell of Illinois introduced a companion bill on January 9, 1888. As reported by the House District committee, Rowell's bill would direct the District commissioners to survey and plat the proposed park. The survey map would be recorded and the land condemned, but no money would be paid unless and until appropriated by Congress. If Congress did not act within two years, all proceedings would be voided. [17]

Rep. John J. Hemphill of South Carolina, House District committee chairman, brought the bill to the floor on August 13. He and other proponents declared the proposed condemnation procedure necessary to fore-stall undue increases in land prices as a result of government interest. They argued that the measure was in effect a fact-finding bill that placed no obligation on Congress should it judge the expense too great. Minimizing the probably cost, they suggested that certain landowners would be willing to donate to the park.

Others were unpersuaded. Their reaction reflected the long-standing hostility to District expenditures of congressmen whose distant constituents benefited little from taxpayer-financed local improvements. "If I gave an opinion I should say it was clearly, very clearly, a plan to commit this Congress to a proposal to expend perhaps a million dollars, more or less..., to secure this creek bed and banks, inclose, protect, and beautify them at the expense of the Government, the primary result being to largely enhance the value of the speculative holdings of the owners of real estate thereabout...," said Rep. Lewis E. Payson of Illinois. Opponents burdened the bill with so many weakening amendments that Hemphill requested and obtained unanimous consent to return it to his committee for revision. [18]

Undiscouraged, the local interests behind the park project redoubled their efforts. That Thanksgiving Day, Charles Carroll Glover, a prominent Washington banker, Capt. Thomas W. Symons, assistant to the District engineer commissioner, and other civic leaders rode through Rock Creek valley. A few days later at Glover's house, Crosby S. Noyes of the Evening Star newspaper presided over a strategy session. There followed a mass meeting at the Atlantic Building on January 11, 1889. Glover, Noyes, F. A. Richardson, George E. Lemon, B. H. Warner, and A. T. Britton were appointed a permanent executive committee to lobby for passage of park legislation. [19]

On January 14 Hemphill introduced a new bill, which his committee reported favorably to the House 12 days later. In addition to the aesthetic argument for the park, the report cited the health hazard that would arise if development and its attendant sewage were not kept away from Rock Creek. The new bill, it noted, set a 2,500-acre limit on land acquisition and specified the same condemnation process recently adopted for obtaining the Library of Congress site across from the Capitol. The House declined to consider the bill, however, and the Senate took no action on Ingalls' bill, reported from committee there on February 15. Hemphill tried but failed to attach his park measure to another pending bill, enacted March 2, 1889, that established the National Zoological Park in Rock Creek valley under the Smithsonian Institution. [20]

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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