The law that established Rock Creek Park 125 years ago began with a plan for a new White House.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Washington had few sewers — unless you counted the cesspool called Washington Canal (located about where Constitution Avenue is today). The canal dumped raw sewage into the Potomac just south of the White House.
The presidential mansion had other shortcomings. Not yet expanded with new wings, the modest building was a jumble of offices and living areas.
In 1866, the Senate ordered a study of possible new sites for an executive mansion to be surrounded by a buffer of parkland. When Major Nathaniel Michler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned in his report the next year, his emphasis was on the green space, not the mansion.
Michler praised Rock Creek valley as a “wild and romantic tract of country” worthy of a “national park.” The Senate voted to acquire land for such a park. The House did not—and the moment passed.
The 1880s saw new interest in preserving the valley before developers could alter the natural landscape and possibly turn Rock Creek itself into something of a sewer. There was also a competing vision proposed in 1883 by Richard Hoxie, administrator of the city’s sanitation system. While he too favored a large public park, he recommended as its centerpiece a lake four miles long that could satisfy DC’s future water needs. Captain Hoxie proposed building a masonry dam above Georgetown to flood a large part of Rock Creek valley that he considered “nearly all of it worthless for any other purpose, being precipitous, rocky hillside.”
Lobbying for Parkland
The city’s business elite supported the preservation plan and rallied to find allies in Congress. Opponents resisted using taxpayer money for a park, especially after the federal government had to bail DC out of bankruptcy following Alexander Shepherd’s aggressive spending on public improvements. Other detractors suggested that major park advocates — from Ohio Senator John Sherman to bankers Charles Glover and Brainard Warner — were only trying to get Uncle Sam to help increase the value of their own investments.
The Senate voted to establish the park in January 1890. Eying the upcoming 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to America, the House added an amendment designating the preserve “Columbus Memorial Park” — possibly attracting enough new votes to account for passage in April. A conference committee restored the name Rock Creek Park but retained a House provision requiring the District to pick up half the cost of purchasing land.
When President Benjamin Harrison signed the act into law September 27, 1890, only Yellowstone and Sequoia had been declared National Parks. Now Rock Creek joined them as “a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” Throughout 2015, you can help celebrate the Park’s 125th anniversary year.
A Supreme Challenge
The legislation formed the new preserve mainly by condemning privately owned land. But it also mandated assessing owners of property adjoining the park for any resulting increase in value. Many of the same landowners who had lost part of their holdings to create the park (and had complained about inadequate compensation) found themselves with the prospect of higher assessments on their remaining property. They sued.
It took the Supreme Court to decide in 1898 that such assessments were constitutional. But no extra taxes were ever paid. Although parkside property is highly valued today, the Rock Creek Commissioners determined that having a park next door had produced no appreciation in value.
More Laws Worth Celebrating
During the 40 years following the historic 1890 act, Congress passed several more laws with a significant impact on Rock Creek Park. “An act to establish a National Park Service” was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in August 1916. However, Rock Creek Park did not come under its jurisdiction until a 1933 executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt.
A 1924 law created the National Capital Park Commission "to preserve the flow of water in Rock Creek, to prevent pollution of Rock Creek and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, to preserve forests and natural scenery in and about Washington, and to provide for the comprehensive … development of the park, parkway, and playground system of the National Capital." The state of Maryland gave its own charter to the group in 1927 to acquire and administer parkland in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties — thereby establishing the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Finally, the 1930 Capper-Cramton Act provided the basis for a huge expansion of protected land in the area, especially within the Rock Creek watershed. Michigan’s Louis Cramton proposed generous federal grants and funding advances for the acquisition of parkland in DC and Maryland. The law led to the preservation of thousands of acres — including Rock Creek Regional Park in Maryland (under the MNCPPC) and such new parcels within Rock Creek Park as Potomac Palisades Parkway, the Fort Circle Parks and Melvin C. Hazen Park.