An Administrative History-Public Use

Regulating Public Use

On April 29, 1895, before building any roads or taking other steps to facilitate public access, the Board of Control adopted the first regulations for use of Rock Creek Park. In doing so it was aided by copies of regulations requested from managers of large city parks in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

The board forbade driving (carriages) or riding except on existing roads and bridle paths; driving or riding horses, bicycles, or tricycles more than 10 miles per hour, and coasting with the pedaled vehicles; discharging of firearms or fireworks; cutting or defacing vegetation and damaging structures; hunting, trapping, and fishing; fires; and overnight camping or "tarrying." There were to be no public assemblies by advertisement, except that group picnics could be scheduled with the board's permission. Livestock grazing and bathing were prohibited, but both were subsequently allowed under permit. Offenses were punishable by fines of from five to fifty dollars. [18]

In 1912 the speed limit for all vehicles was raised to 12 miles per hour, but no motor vehicle seating more than eight persons was allowed. The latter provision was waived for a private bus service arranged by the board: a bus left 18th Street and Columbia Road hourly, traversing the Zoological Park and Rock Creek Park via Beach Drive to Brightwood. The trip cost 10 cents each way, with around trip without stopover available for 15 cents. The board reported that the service had proved "very popular." [19]

Bathing was supposed to occur only where "secluded from the observation of persons passing along the public roads," but this proved difficult to enforce. An indignant citizen wrote the District engineer commissioner in 1913 to ask that bathers be kept from the park. "These boys and young men commit all kinds of nuisances, such as exposing their persons to passes by, profanity, in it's worst form, fighting, throwing stones...", the correspondent declared. "Ninety-five percent of this crowd is of the lowest or degenerate type, and the fact that they are permitted to bathe here without molestation, encourages the assembly of a tough element of ruffians that would never infest this park under any other conditions." Lee Grabill recommended to the Board of Control that bathing permits be ended, but the park continued to accommodate the activity in designated areas into the 1920s. [20]

In July 1922, with automobiles predominant among park users, the Public Buildings and Grounds office announced a rule against night parking in Rock Creek Park. There was widespread objection from the many persons and families who tried to cope with Washington's oppressive summer heat and humidity by parking and sleeping in the cooler valley. Colonel Sherrill retreated and instructed Army Capt. W.L. McMorris, superintendent of park police, "to use discretion in administering the order, which is aimed solely at persons parking at late hours of the night and early hours of the morning for immoral purposes...," according to the Evening Star newspaper. Readers were assured that the regulation had been designed only "to protect the law-abiding public from nuisance and young girls from waywardness." [21]

In keeping with local custom, developed picnic grounds in the park were racially segregated. A 1921 memorandum from Colonel Sherrill to Francis Gillen reaffirmed this policy and prescribed signs to distinguish the picnic areas as "white" and "colored." Rep. Martin B. Madden of Illinois, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, objected to the policy and succeeded in relaxing it. After Madden's death in 1928, U. S. Grant III as director of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks moved to revive picnic segregation. [22] It did not remain official policy, but the races customarily kept to themselves in this and other park activities.


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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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Rock Creek Park administrative offices can be reached at 202-895-6000. For general information call 202-895-6070 Wednesday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and dial 0.

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