Planner’s foresight helped make Rock Creek a park for the people
Thousands of people in the largely gray environs of the District of Columbia routinely find solace, wildlife and outdoor exercise in the enormous swath of urban woodlands known as Rock Creek Park.
They owe thanks, in part, to Civil War veteran Nathaniel Michler for not - entirely - following directions.
In 1866, Michler was asked to suggest a site for a presidential retreat. In the process, he fell in love with Rock Creek and championed a public park instead.
In Michler's time, at the close of the Civil War, Rock Creek lay in what was considered rugged land on the outskirts of the city. Today, Rock Creek Park, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, is a large green oasis in the heart of the nation's capital, surrounded by city roads and neighborhoods.
With more than 1,700 acres, the main section is twice the area of New York's Central Park. Combined with land along Rock Creek tributaries, as well as other satellite areas in the District of Columbia, visitors can explore more than 2,000 acres of woods, picnic areas, trails and historic sites.
Michler's 19th-century scouting mission took place because the White House and its setting - less inspiring than today - had some problems. The building was smaller and crowded with the competing needs of administrative offices, state functions and the presidential family.
It also neighbored a shallow portion of the Potomac River where the city canal disgorged its dirty water. President Abraham Lincoln often sought relief beyond the city limits.
The Senate looked for a solution. Michler was charged with finding a large tract of land adjacent to or near the city, suitable for a park and presidential mansion "which shall combine convenience of access, healthfulness, good water, and capability of adornment."
Michler took some liberty with that task. He found a site that enchanted him, but directed most of his efforts toward promoting a public park.
"[A park] certainly is the most economical and practical means of providing all, old and young, rich and poor, with that greatest of all needs, healthy exercise in the open country," Michler reported to the Senate.
His proposal centered on Rock Creek.
"For a short distance it courses through a narrow but beautiful valley," Michler wrote, "then wildly dashes for a mile over a succession of falls and rapids, with a descent of some eight feet, the banks on both sides being bold, rocky, and picturesque; then passes again though narrow valleys or between high, bluff banks."
Michler could already imagine "costly suburban villas" in its future and urged the Senate to act quickly. The nation, though, was still reeling from the war. It would be another two decades before the funds and votes aligned with his vision.
In 1890, Rock Creek became one of the first federal parks in the nation, created at the same time as Yosemite.
The foresight shown by Michler and the park's congressional champions left the people of Washington a lasting gift.
The main body of the park was designed to follow the stream valley, creating an elongated shape that runs more than 18 miles from the northern edge of the District of Columbia south to the Potomac River. The grounds also spread like small green fingers along some of its tributaries.
The famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., also had a hand in shaping Rock Creek Park. In 1918, his firm studied the park and made recommendations for its management. Their findings stressed preserving natural beauty against the pressures of human use and urbanization.
The opening sentence of the report argues that: "The dominant consideration, never to be subordinated to any other purpose in dealing with Rock Creek Park, is the permanent preservation of its wonderful natural beauty, and the making of that beauty accessible to the people without spoiling the scenery in the process."
This quickly became the guiding principal for park management. Over time, of course, traffic increased and some formal features were added to the park - including a nature center, historic buildings, golf course, amphitheater and even the National Zoo. However, the landscape has remained mostly wooded with little intrusion from human structures.
Beth Mullin, director of the nonprofit Rock Creek Conservancy, said the park provides a welcome natural area in the midst of a city dominated by politics, monuments and museums.
"It's a wilderness in the city with foxes, beavers, deer and all kinds of birds. In fact, I just saw four baby foxes chasing each other," Mullin said.
The park includes 32 miles of trails with a variety of options for hiking, skating, biking and horseback riding.
Mullin said the park sees approximately 2 million recreational visits a year. Millions of people also drive through the park as part of their daily routines.
"That's really an asset, too, for commuters to enjoy some of that tranquility on their way to work," Mullin said.
True to its name, the Rock Creek valley offers dramatic displays of boulders and rocky outcrops along the stream and the trails. These features are visual clues to the "fall line," an important geological boundary in the Chesapeake region. The fall line is a drop in elevation that creates waterfalls in streams along a north-south path separating the Piedmont Plateau from the Coastal Plain.
Like many streams along the fall line, Rock Creek's waterfalls once powered mills. Historic Peirce Mill, the last of its kind on Rock Creek, is restored and open to the public on park grounds.
Rock Creek enjoys an unusual length and depth of forested buffer for an urban stream. But the balance between the urban and natural landscape is delicate, and Rock Creek does not always emerge the winner. Although forest covers 81 percent of the park itself, only 24 percent of the watershed as a whole is forested. Some tributaries flow through areas with up to 75 percent impervious surface.
A 2009 study for the National Park Service found that Rock Creek is especially stressed by air pollution and stormwater runoff. Airborne pollutants from power plants, industry and vehicles deposit nitrate, sulfate and mercury, which compromise water quality and wildlife habitat. Runoff, often from older subdivisions without adequate stormwater management, carries trash and untreated sewage into the stream.
Invasive plants and an overpopulation of deer also threaten the ecosystem.
The extent of these problems varies widely by location, but pollution generally increases as the creek approaches the Potomac.
The District of Columbia, National Park Service and Rock Creek Conservancy are each engaged with projects designed to bring relief and long-term protection to the stream valley. Montgomery County has protected a large amount of land in the headwaters.
Rock Creek Conservancy is focused on volunteer stewardship efforts both within the park and surrounding neighborhoods.
One of the group's earliest projects was to help migrating fish move around the dam that blocked access to the creek above Peirce Mill. Volunteers caught herring and alewife in nets and buckets and moved them upstream by hand. Today, a permanent "fish ladder" adjoins the dam with a series of steps that allow migrating fish to move themselves toward the creek's upper reaches.
Mullin says the greatest challenge is polluted stormwater runoff. The conservancy has targeted two neighborhoods for a combination of local level projects that will retain and absorb rainwater where it falls. "We're blitzing the areas with low-impact development projects like pervious pavement and rainscaping," Mullin said.
District residents value the park greatly, and that's a big help with raising awareness of its problems. In fact, the conservancy stresses the good of the park over less familiar terms like "watershed," which Mullin points out are actually the same thing.
"Instead of explaining our goal as a healthy and sustainable watershed, we're now talking about the waters, parks and lands of Rock Creek," Mullin said. She hopes that people who love the park will also respect its resources, and she has found that many are receptive to this message.
High visitor usage can lead to proposals for additional trails, activity areas or other attractions. Those who object to such changes often direct attention to the 1918 Olmsted report to reinforce a high standard for the park's largely natural state.
"We want people to enjoy the park, love the park and then want to be involved with its stewardship," Mullin said.
Volunteer keeps nose to the grindstone to restart mill's wheel
Eighteen years ago, the water wheel at historic Peirce Mill stopped turning. For just as long, Richard Abbott has been working to see it turn again. His patience paid off in October, when the Friends of Peirce Mill and the National Park Service celebrated the grand re-opening of the 19th-century mill.
Peirce Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the last surviving mill that operated along Rock Creek in the District of Columbia. Built in the 1820s, the mill ceased commercial operations near the turn of the century and was incorporated into Rock Creek Park as part of the federal park system.
Restoration work kept the mill operating and producing flour during much of the 20th century.
Abbott was volunteering at the mill in 1993 when rotting wood in the wheel shaft caused serious damage to the gears. "I shut the water off that day and this is the first I've seen it running since," Abbott said.
Abbott helped to found the Friends of Peirce Mill, which raised more than $1 million from foundations, families and individuals to restore the milling machinery. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $2 million to complete the work, which included reinforcing the building, adding safety features and grading the grounds to recreate their 19th-century slope. The building retains a dramatic presence with massive stone walls and the green backdrop of Rock Creek Park. Inside, visitors have a full view of the gravity-driven mechanisms that move, clean and grind grain into flour. The creek no longer drives the water wheel. Instead, a pump circulates water over the wheel and through a restored section of the mill race.
Peirce Mill is located at the corner of Tilden Street NW and Beach Drive, Washington, DC, and is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Group Tours are available by reservation. For information, call 202-895-6070 or visit www.peircemill-friends.org.
Exploring Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park is open seven days a week during daylight hours. Swimming, bathing and wading by people or pets is prohibited.
The main section of Rock Creek Park includes more than 1,700 acres on both sides of the stream valley in the District of Columbia, as well as many of its tributaries.
Amenities include a nature center and planetarium; amphitheater, historic Peirce Mill, picnic pavilions and more than 32 miles of paved and gravel trails. Some of the park roads are closed to vehicles on weekends and holidays for sole use by bikers, roller-bladers, hikers and joggers.
Rock Creek Park also includes satellite areas in the district, such as the Old Stone House, Dumbarton Oaks Park and Georgetown Waterfront Park, and extends north into Rock Creek Regional Park in Montgomery County.
Maps and information about Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia are available at www.nps.gov/rocr or by contacting the National Park Service at 202-895-6070.
Maps and information about the full collection of Rock Creek parks and stewardship efforts are available at www.rockcreekconservancy.org.
For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 after publication.