Splashing through Rock Creek with water lapping at your car's hubcaps used to be both a delight and a danger for area drivers.
For centuries, a stream powerful enough to turn mill wheels also created a barrier for travelers trying to go east and west through what is now Northwest Washington. When farmers filled their wagons with crops and millers loaded grain for market, they looked for the points where Rock Creek was shallowest. There they forded the stream—and, early in the history of Rock Creek Park, some of these locations were improved into more formal fords.
The Ford at the Milkhouse
One of the oldest crossings is the only one that has been preserved. Milkhouse Ford—named after an actual milkhouse on Rock Creek that chilled dairy products with the stream's cool water—was originally part of Milkhouse Ford Road, a historic east-west route replaced during the Civil War by nearby Military Road.
Instead of building a bridge across Rock Creek as Beach Drive was extended north, Milkhouse Ford was paved in 1904. Concrete was laid below the normal water level of the creek some six to eight inches thick, 24 feet wide and 74 feet long. The goal was to provide a solid surface where the creek would flow no more than three inches deep most of the year. You can still see remnants of a similar ford constructed at the foot of Blagden Avenue, near where Broad Branch flows into Rock Creek.
Farther south was Klingle Ford, whose historic name is shared today with the Klingle Mansion, built in 1823, and Klingle Road, laid out in 1831. While travelers along Rock Creek had to depend on the ford, Klingle Road had its own bridge, referenced in the first sentence of the 1890 law that authorized Rock Creek Park as "beginning at Klingle Ford Bridge, and running northwardly."
Two other fords, one just above and the other just below the National Zoo, required travelers on Beach Drive to forge through the water.
Many people alive today recall with some glee driving to the zoo or even commuting through some of Rock Creek's fords. But, as the Evening Star wrote in 1956 about the zoo fords, "the slightest flash rain usually is enough to force zoo police to haul out the ford barriers and route disgruntled motorists back to city streets." The Star noted that both zoo fords had been closed all day for 122 days of the previous year and closed part of the day on 62 other occasions.
Any ford can be dangerous. In June 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt was riding a skittish horse that had second thoughts about crossing Broad Branch Ford. It reared and fell, throwing both Teddy and his mount into the stream. As the Washington Post reported, "the President's fall ... took him completely clear of the horse, and to that circumstance he probably owes his life."
A flooded ford was especially treacherous. Also in 1908 at the same location, high water swept an automobile into the surging creek. According to the Post, two occupants jumped into the water, and "standing waist deep ... rescued their wives, carrying them to shore in their arms."
After heavy thunderstorms in 1939, a car stalled on Klingle Ford. The Evening Star noted that just before the vehicle went careening "downstream like a wood box," the driver "picked up his dog Mickey and waded ashore."
Lingering into the Recent Past
One by one, the fords were replaced. A bridge built in 1926 allowed drivers to bypass Milkhouse Ford—though a wet crossing remained an option until 1994. Today you can look, but not cross.
The Porter Street bridge replaced Klingle Ford in 1947. The intersection of Broach Branch Road and Beach Drive was re-engineered in the mid-1950s, replacing both Broad Branch Ford and the adjacent Pebble Dash Bridge. Finally, it took the completion of the zoo tunnel in 1966 for travelers on Beach Drive to forgo the zoo fords.
Proposals to build the zoo tunnel had accelerated with the opening of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway in 1936. But the Parkway also inspired controversial plans to extend the highway north along the creek. Before a tunnel could be built, the question that had to be answered was: what kind of road would the tunnel lead to? For three decades it was unclear whether it would continue as a shady, two-lane road—or transform into a four-lane expressway connecting with Klingle Road or Colorado Avenue or perhaps continuing north along Oregon Avenue into Maryland as far as East-West Highway or even to the future I-270.
A final answer was elusive because all parties had to agree: the District, the National Park Service and (since the route went through the zoo) the Smithsonian—with the National Capital Park and Planning Commission and Maryland authorities also weighing in. This stalemate prevented the construction of an expressway until attention turned instead to building the Beltway and Metro. Thus Beach Drive stayed a sylvan two-lane road and the fords remained open well into the 1960s as a vestige of Rock Creek history.