An Administrative History-Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway


Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway

Rock Creek Park was and is limited to the creek valley north of the National Zoological Park. When Congress authorized its establishment in 1890, little or no thought was given park treatment of the degraded valley from the Zoo south to the Potomac River. Later, under a separate commission, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was established and developed there. The parkway--the term encompassing the strip of park land, not just the road extending along it--continues southeast along the Potomac from the creek to West Potomac Park at the Lincoln Memorial. Here we shall be concerned primarily with the portion above the creek mouth: although never officially part of Rock Creek Park, it has long been administratively linked with the larger park and is properly considered an extension of it.

The histories of urban streams frequently conclude with their tunneling and conversion to underground sewers, hidden from public view beneath city streets. Such was the fate of Washington's Tiber Creek, initially transformed in its lower reaches as part of the Washington City Canal, then buried beneath B Street Northwest (today's Constitution Avenue) after the Civil War. By the late 1880s the lower portion of Rock Creek seemed destined for similar treatment. It carried odiferous sewage from adjoining industrial development. Its valley had become an unsightly dumping ground and was perceived as a barrier to convenient access between Georgetown and Washington. "Arching" the creek and filling in the valley over it would cover the sewage and refuse, eliminate the need for bridges, and create valuable new land for building.

A Senate resolution of July 22, 1892, asked the District engineer commissioner, Capt. William T. Rossell, to prepare plans and estimates for converting Rock Creek below Massachusetts Avenue into a closed sewer and to compute the net gain from the increased value of the filled land over the cost of the valley land that would need to be condemned. Reporting back on January 10, 1893, Rossell sought to discourage the project. Efforts were then underway to divert all sewage into the Potomac below Washington; planned use of Rock Creek for other than storm water drainage "would be wrong in principle and enormously expensive," he wrote. "From a sanitary standpoint I can see no necessity for covering the creek at all if the sewage is kept out of it." [1]

Rossell appended a report by Capt. Gustav J. Fiebeger, his assistant, estimating that more than six million cubic yards of fill would be needed to level the valley. Another appended report by another assistant, Capt. James L. Lusk, raised the specter of flood waters backing up and inundating portions of the city if the inlet to the covered lower creek became clogged by debris. Proponents of filling the valley were not persuaded by these adverse reports, but they made no major progress during the decade in advancing their objective.

The lower valley next became an object of federal action in 1900, when Congress authorized and appropriated $4,000 for the Army chief of engineers to examine and report on "a suitable connection between the Potomac and the Zoological parks" and to employ "a landscape architect of conspicuous ability in his profession" for the purpose. Brig. Gen. John M. Wilson, the chief of engineers, referred the task to Col. Theodore A. Bingham, officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds, who engaged Samuel Parsons, Jr., a New York landscape architect. [2]

The larger mission included a plan for the Mall area, on which Parsons lavished most of his attention. He provided for a road extending west from the Washington Monument and turning north on the alignment of 23rd Street, with the space between 22nd and 24th streets made an open parkway. This straight course did not hit Rock Creek until near O Street, whereupon it followed the winding valley up to the Zoo. The valley below N Street, running west of the straight north-south segment, was thus excluded from park treatment. Secretary of War Elihu Root endorsed the Parsons plan in reporting it to the Speaker of the House. Colonel Bingham confessed that the plan had been hastily prepared, however, with "some minor points which it is not intended should be carried out exactly as they appear on the drawings" because "the draftsmen were not personally familiar with the ground they were deliniating." [3]

The Parsons plan received no homage from the distinguished McMillan Commission, whose work followed close upon it. The commission's 1902 report called Rock Creek valley below the Zoo "unsightly to the verge of ugliness." The situation was not helped by the lack of resolution about filling it versus leaving it open. "The need for a definite plan of treatment is shown in a striking manner by the fact that on the line of Connecticut Avenue a bridge is in course of construction [the present Taft Bridge]; while on the line of Massachusetts avenue a culvert is building, the obvious intention being to fill the entire valley southward to the mouth of the creek." [4]

Although the fill carrying Massachusetts Avenue would "interfere with the perfect execution of the open-valley plan," the commission strongly recommended this alternative "on grounds of economy, convenience, and beauty." Travelers along drives and paths depressed below the surrounding grade would be spared views of the "shabby, sordid, and disagreeable" tenements and factories adjoining between Pennsylvania Avenue and Q Street. "It is therefore a very fortunate opportunity that permits the seclusion of the parkway in a valley the immediate sides of which can be controlled and can be made to limit the view to a self-contained landscape, which may be beautiful even though restricted." By retaining the valley, moreover, east-west crossings would continue by bridge rather than at grade and would be less disruptive to a park experience. [5]

The Washington Board of Trade favored the McMillan Commission approach. The Georgetown Citizens' Association did not, preferring that at least a portion of the valley be filled to improve access between Georgetown and Washington. Sen. Nathan B. Scott of West Virginia and Rep. William S. Cowherd of Missouri introduced bills responsive to the Georgetown interests in January 1904. They called for putting Rock Creek in a culvert from Lyons Mill (adjacent to Sheridan Circle) down to 25th and O streets, which would eliminate the easterly bend of the creek between those points, and building an avenue atop the fill. The Georgetown Citizens' Association solicited the support of the District commissioners for the legislation, and the commissioners declared that if Congress voted such an extraordinary expenditure they would favor it. [6] A year later Sen. Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois introduced another bill incorporating a pet scheme of Richard J. Beall, a former District official; it would arch the creek from L Street up to Connecticut Avenue, where a dam would create a large bathing pool. The District commissioners opposed this plan, and Congress took no action on any of the bills. [7]

Faced with continuing and conflicting pressures to do something about the lower valley, Congress provided another $4,000 in the fiscal 1908 District appropriations act for another study. The District engineer commissioner, Maj. Jay J. Morrow, and his assistant, Capt. E. M. Markham, were charged with preparing plans and estimates for the treatment of the valley below Massachusetts Avenue, "both by open-valley method and by conduit." [8]

The resulting report, submitted in May 1908, assumed at the outset that some form of parkway was called for: "A park effect of one kind or another is unquestionably the essence of any possible treatment of Rock Creek between Massachusetts avenue and L street...," Markham wrote. The two engineer officers examined four alternatives: a conduit with fill carrying a 160-foot-wide boulevard from Massachusetts to L; the same with a 400-foot-wide boulevard; a conduit with fill carrying a 160-foot-wide boulevard from L to O streets, the valley to be open above O Street; and a fully open valley "with the proper arrangement of high-level and low-level roads and paths throughout the entire distance." Below L Street all alternatives would have an elevated boulevard connection with Potomac Park, and all would acquire and leave natural the valley above Massachusetts Avenue. [9]

Morrow and Markham favored the fully open valley, with a main drive along the creek and bordering roadways above on each side so the backs of buildings would not present themselves to view from within the park. They estimated the cost of this treatment between Massachusetts Avenue and L Street at $4,750,000--significantly less than the other choices. As part of the work they recommended preservation of the defunct Lyons Mill as a "historic structure"; a planned road bridge crossing the creek nearby would have a brick superstructure to match it. [10] The engineers sought to dispel the notion of rapid economic gain from a filled valley. Because the fill would take many years to subside and stabilize, "it is probable that a cheap character of building would ensue along this boulevard, rather than it would become the fine residential avenue that its cost and character should warrant." They continued:

The closed-conduit method of improvement, which would doubtless involve in it mere fill from eight to ten years, could therefore hardly meet the expectations of its supporters for a period of at least twenty to thirty years, if ever.

It is the apparent expectation of those interested in the closed treatment that the business interests of Georgetown would be vastly bettered thereby, and that a good class of residential construction would spread westward from Washington across the present site of the valley and, invading Georgetown, would finally eliminate the squalid settlements along the west side of Rock Creek below P street. This is very seriously doubted. [11]

Morrow and Markham urged prompt action on behalf of the open plan in view of the ongoing dumping in the valley. W. J. Douglas, the District bridge engineer, joined in their position and advocated assessing 20 per-cent of the total cost of the improvement against the abutting properties for the benefits accruing to them. [12]

There was no immediate action on the Morrow-Markham report, but establishment of the Commission of Fine Arts two years later gave new official voice to its recommendation and the similar previous one of the McMillan Commission. Sen. George Peabody Wetmore of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Library, became personally interested in the lower valley. In February 1911 he introduced legislation for a park there that would contain the U.S. Botanic Garden, relocated from the west side of the Capitol. That March Wetmore conferred at length with Chairman Daniel H. Burnham of the Fine Arts Commission, and commission member Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., prepared for Wetmore a report on the area. Olmsted favored the parkway but opposed relocation of the Botanic Garden there, warning that "such use of the valley would offer a constant temptation to introduce greenhouses, working yards, experimental garden plots, and other conspicuously artificial features which would radically impair the character of the whole valley landscape as seen from the surrounding high level drives and viaducts." [13]

Wetmore reintroduced his bill, still containing the Botanic Garden provision and a $2,300,000 appropriation authorization, in the next Congress in May 1911. The Senate passed it in August. The House took no action, whereupon the Senate, in the final week before adjournment in February 1913, inserted the bill's language in an omnibus public buildings bill referred to it by the House. [14]

When the amended omnibus bill returned to the House after Senate passage, the House refused to concur in the Rock Creek provision. "That old crooked black snake proposition that has been before the House so often and always fails on its own merits was sneaked in here," charged Rep. Thetus W. Sims of Tennessee. When a conference committee was appointed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions, the House conferees specified the Senate's Rock Creek amendment as one they would not accept. But Sen. George Sutherland of Utah, chairman of the Public Buildings and Grounds committee, regarded it as the most urgent of the items in contention because of rising land values. Sen. Elihu Root of New York stood fast with him, calling it "little less than criminal for us to go on without doing something like we have provided in this bill in regard to the treatment of lower Rock Creek, cesspool and pesthole as it is." [15]

On the penultimate day of the Congress, in the third conference on the bill, the conferees finally agreed on a modified version of the Rock Creek provision. Relocation of the Botanic Garden and a million dollars were cut out, but its substance stayed. Section 22 of the Public Buildings Act of March 4, 1913, in the form finally passed and approved by President William Howard Taft on his last morning in office, began as follows:

That for the purpose of preventing the pollution and obstruction of Rock Creek and of connecting Potomac Park with the Zoological Park and Rock Creek Park, a commission, to be composed of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of Agriculture, is hereby authorized and directed to acquire, by purchase, condemnation, or otherwise, such land and premises as are not now the property of the United States in the District of Columbia shown on the map on file in the office of the Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia, dated May seventeenth, nineteen hundred and eleven, and lying on both sides of Rock Creek, including such portion of the creek bed as may be in private ownership, between the Zoological Park and Potomac Park; and the sum of $1,300,000 is hereby authorized to be expended toward the requirement of such land. That all lands now belonging to the United States or to the District of Columbia lying within the exterior boundaries of the land to be acquired...are hereby appropriated to and made apart of the parkway herein authorized to be acquired. One-half of the cost of the said lands shall be reimbursed to the Treasury of the United States out of the revenues of the District of Columbia.... [16]

To carry out the actual work of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Commission, the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds was made its executive and disbursing officer. As will be recalled from the discussion of Rock Creek Park's management, the duties of this position fell in 1925 to the director of the new Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital. Once Rock Creek Park came under Public Buildings and Grounds in 1918, therefore, the park and parkway were administered by the same succession of engineer officers and staff.

In his capacity as executive and disbursing officer of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Commission, Col. William W. Harts (Col. Clarence S. Ridley's predecessor as officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds) soon found that the boundary map referenced in the authorizing legislation was inadequate: its scale was too small and it had been drawn without regard to existing lot lines. If the commission were forced to acquire all land within its taking lines, the expense would far exceed the authorized appropriation. The commission chairman, Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo, thereupon wrote the speaker of the House to request corrective legislation. The result was a $5,000 appropriation approved March 3, 1915, for the commission to survey the exact boundaries of the lands now desired and submit the resulting map to Congress. [17]

Landscape architect James D. Langdon and others on Colonel Harts' staff set to work. Their survey and comprehensive accompanying report were reviewed by Frederick Law Olmsted and approved by the Fine Arts Commission before the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Commission transmitted them to Congress in February 1916. Because the battle to secure appropriations for land acquisition and development still lay ahead, the report devoted some attention to further justifying the project. Filling the 2-1/2-mile gap between the existing parkland to the north and south would permit a continuous drive of 14-1/2 miles, it declared, continuing:

It is true one may ride in the saddle or walk about half the way along a winding stream through an attractive valley, but the remainder of the valley in this intervening area is inaccessible even to pedestrians, its natural features having long since disappeared under great dumps of ashes and city refuse whose steep slopes descend precipitously to the stream's edge. To unaccompanied women and children the trip through the more accessible section of this valley is not altogether without drawbacks, for as these areas are largely private property effective policing is difficult [Between Land P streets] the natural features [have] been almost entirely eliminated by the dumping of refuse on the creek banks Where dumping has ceased the slopes are overgrown with tangles of bush and tree until they present a sordid and undesirable appearance. This condition has long militated against the occupancy of this region by any but the lowest type of population. [18]

The report detailed the newly proposed takings of property with respect to lot lines. The parkway commission sought to acquire 4,113,818 square feet assessed at $1,422,693 (as opposed to 5,989,581 square feet on the 1911 map assessed at $2,796,209). The greatest difficulties were forseen in connection with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company and the Washington Gas Light Company, which held most of the valley below the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge. [19]

The eastern terminus of the C & O Canal entered Rock Creek on alignment with L Street and used the lower creek, raised by a dam at its mouth and diverted by a mole of stone and earth fill, as a barge basin and trans-shipment area. The canal company claimed perpetual rights to this portion of the creek and the adjoining land it had filled by virtue of its 1828 congressional charter. In discussions with the parkway commission, the company tentatively agreed to relinquish its rights and territory east of the proposed west boundary of the parkway if the government would quitclaim lands to the west used by the company and reroute the canal from the creek. Accordingly, the commission's plan showed the canal angling to the river just west of its existing first lift lock and running parallel to the creek through a new lift lock down to anew tide lock at the river. In conjunction with this reconfiguration, the creek itself would be shifted eastward below the former canal entry point. [20]

The gas company, with its tanks and other apparatus, was the dominant presence on the east side of the lower creek and along the adjoining Potomac riverfront. The commission proposed an exchange by which the company would cede its waterfront holdings for land farther inland, including In unneeded street right of way. Negotiations proceeded smoothly, and the exchange was concluded in September 1917. [21]

Congress accepted the parkway commission's survey and report and voted an initial $50,000 for land acquisition in fiscal year 1917. The commission began purchasing tracts in September 1916. By early 1923 it had acquired 82 percent of the authorized parkway. Finding that it could not obtain the balance by negotiation at reasonable cost, it asked the attorney general to condemn the remaining parcels south of M Street. [22]

The commission had reached a more serious impasse in its negotiations with the C & O Canal Company. By the Jurisdictional Act of April 27, 1912, the attorney general had been directed to file suit against the canal company and other parties claiming interest in lands and waters in, under, and adjacent to the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Rock Creek to establish and clarify the government's title thereto. The suit against the canal company was shelved while the exchange negotiations held promise; but the company proved more demanding than expected. Negotiations were suspended during the war, then resumed, then suspended again upon the company's insistence that it receive fee simple title to the territory it would gain. At the commission's request, the Justice Department reactivated the suit in late 1923--the government claiming it owned the land wanted for the parkway because it had been made on the bed of a navigable stream, the company claiming ownership because Congress had granted it the use of Rock Creek for its canal. [23]

The government's hand was much strengthened by an otherwise calamitous natural occurrence: the Potomac flood of May 12-14, 1924. Canal navigation had been suspended by damage from many previous floods, but barge traffic and revenues had now dwindled to the point where it no longer paid to rebuild. The company initially insisted that navigation would resume, but as time passed without the necessary repairs, the Justice Department was able to argue for reversion of the company's rights to Rock Creek and the made land along it. In 1930 Lt. Col. U. S. Grant III, then the parkway commission's executive officer, formally requested the District assessor to transfer the made land from the company to the United States on his books. The still-pending title suit was finally settled, in the government's favor, in May 1933. [24]

The Justice Department moved slowly on the commission's 1923 request for condemnation of other parkway lands. The more time passed, the higher property values rose, rendering obsolete the commission's estimates in its 1916 report to Congress. The $1,300,000 authorized in the 1913 act was fully appropriated by 1925, and approximately 12 acres--including expensive tracts at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street--remained to be bought. At the beginning of 1926 the commission was forced to draft and send to Congress a bill to authorize another $600,000 to complete acquisition. The bill had all funds coming from the Treasury, which gave congressmen from distant districts another opportunity to vociferously protest the taxing of their people for local improvements. The Senate sought to compromise with 50-50 cost sharing as in the original parkway authorization, but Rep. Thomas L. Blanton of Texas led House opponents in insisting on full funding from District revenues. On that basis the authorization was approved in May and the appropriation made two months later. [25]

Inevitably, the commission staff and influential outside parties occasionally found it desirable to amend the parkway boundaries set in 1916. Brig. Gen. S. T. Ansell, acting judge advocate general, and Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah lived near the Calvert Street crossing and wanted excluded tracts west of Ashmead Place and 20th Street purchased to protect their views. Smoot inserted a provision in a fiscal 1921 appropriations act directing addition of the land to the parkway. A smaller addition was ordered by a District appropriations act in 1923. [26]

In 1927 outside pressure was successfully exerted to have the commission sell back a portion of the parkway east of the creek at P Street for the Church of the Pilgrims. Rep. Fiorello H. LaGuardia of New York thought the sale might be detrimental to the park. "I think that is true," Rep. Edwin L. Davis of Tennessee replied, "but Colonel Grant says that it would be a proper thing to do." In fact, Grant had his own reservations, but he had evidently been made to overcome them in preparing and supporting the legislation ordering the sale. Passed and enacted J swiftly without further questions, it allowed the church to recover the land for the price the government had paid in 1924 and gave it a permanent access across parkway property. [27]

Two years later the commission obtained blanket authority to make minor adjustments in the boundaries of the parkway "by excluding therefrom and selling certain small areas, and including other limited areas, the net cost not to exceed the total sum already authorized for the entire project." Colonel Grant made the commission's case for this legislation in transmitting it to Congress:

While the bill does slightly increase the discretion of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Commission, it will be advantageous both from the standpoint of economy and the standpoint of best park development. It will permit the commission to get better prices for the few parcels of land still to be bought, because now the owners stand out for a high price in some cases, feeling that the Government is committed to the purchase of the land and that they can prove a high price in court, while if the commission had the discretion given by this bill, it would be possible to tell the owners that their lands would not be purchased unless they would part with them at a more reasonable price.

The bill was enacted without opposition on March 2, 1929. [28] In the next two years under its authority, the commission acquired 33,642 square feet at Connecticut and Calvert streets and sold 41,932 square feet between P and Q streets.

There was continued frustration with the slow pace of the Justice Department in prosecuting the outstanding land condemnation cases and quiet title suits against other claimants. "[I]t is becoming harder and harder for me to explain to the Committees of Congress each year why this office does not gain possession of the property included in these projects, authorized by law 16 and 15 years ago, some of which acquisitions are absolutely essential to do the construction work proposed by the project," Grant complained to Attorney General William D. Mitchell on May 9, 1929. Justice was roused to action on the remaining seven percent of unacquired land, and by February 1931 the last 13 parcels to be condemned came to public ownership. [29]

The principal developed feature of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, synonymous with it in the public mind, would be the road through it. Segments of the road were under construction in the mid-1920s, but the title disputes and unacquired land prevented it from being made continuous.

The culvert and earth fill carrying Massachusetts Avenue across the valley constituted another obstacle to ideal parkway development. An attractive bridge there would be a great aesthetic improvement and open up the valley; it would also be costly. Lt. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, the parkway commission's executive officer from 1921 to 1925, had a plan to promote the bridge. The commission would build a low road through the culvert that would be flooded over during high water periods. "The public will thus begin in a short while to realize the necessity of a handsome arch bridge and will accordingly support an appropriation for it," he wrote Charles Moore of the Fine Arts Commission in October 1925. [30]

Sherrill's strategy ultimately succeeded: the road through the culvert became the predicted bottleneck, and the District government built the present Massachusetts Avenue bridge to replace the culvert and fill in 1940-41.

With parkway development funds limited, it was necessary to resort to other temporary expedients on occasion. Where the road crossed the creek upstream from the Massachusetts Avenue culvert, the commission installed a bridge employing steel girders salvaged from the old Aqueduct Bridge across the Potomac, dismantled in 1926. [31] The lattice girders rose above the road surface between the two lanes as well as on each side and were not in keeping with other parkway construction. The bridge stood from 1927 to 1938-39, when it was replaced with the present stone-faced span.

In October 1931 the government reached an agreement with the C & O Canal Company that permitted construction of a planned creek crossing where the canal entered the creek. [32] Over the next two years the commission built the so-called L Street bridge there, not crossed by L Street but on its east-west alignment. (It was replaced in 1981-83 by the present bridge at that point.) Simultaneously under construction was the Waterside Drive overpass, carrying southbound traffic from Massachusetts Avenue across the northbound lane of the parkway road to its southbound lane. A tower containing a comfort station and a park police lodge was incorporated in the structure, which was completed in June 1932.

The last leg of the parkway road, between K and P streets, was opened to traffic in October 1935. The bridge crossing the creek just above P Street was not completed until June 1936; in the meantime, through parkway traffic crossed the creek there via the city's P Street overpass, using the parkway ramps at each end to leave and reenter the park road. With the completion of this segment, a park drive could be enjoyed from Potomac Park to the District line and beyond to East-West Highway in Montgomery County, Maryland.

One major aesthetic flaw remained to mar this extended park experience. At the critical confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River, the west bank of the creek was in commercial occupancy. Frederick Law Olmsted had written Charles Moore in 1925 about the problem this posed:

This land, held by the Canal Company and occupied in part by plants for handling gravel and sand, lies directly across the view to the Potomac and the Virginia shore just at the point where anyone driving southward in the parkway would otherwise have that view burst upon him on crossing K Street. I understand that the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway Commission found it impossible to deal with the Canal Company for this land on any reasonable basis....

The canal having been abandoned for navigation, there would be no point in carrying out the old plan in so far as it calls for separating the canal from the creek, but it would be worth a great deal to acquire the land about as far as a line drawn from 29th and K Streets to the south end of 30th Street at the River, in order to provide an unobstructed park foreground to the river view at the point where all the southbound users of the parkway will first become aware of that view and eager to enjoy it. Whether north bound or south bound, users of the parkway will make the transition in this locality from the open broad river bank scenery to the self-contained sylvan scenery of the creek valley or vice versa, and considering the strength and persistency of first impressions this is probably the worst place on the whole line to permit ugly commercial structures and uses to intrude conspicuously on the scenery of the parkway. [33]

The problem would persist until the mid-1980s, when a solution responding in good part to Olmsted's concern appeared imminent.

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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