Before there ever was a Rock Creek Park, American Presidents were there grinding flour, enjoying picnics and getting shot at.
During a century of United States Presidents leading up to the establishment of the park in 1890, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln had the closest connections to Rock Creek valley.
Just months before being elected, Adams purchased a gristmill along Rock Creek on property now part of the National Zoo. A year later, Adams concluded: "the business of the mill has been a losing concern ... and instead of a resource for retirement is likely to prove a heavy clog upon my affairs." As predicted, he seldom made money from Adams' Mill, which he owned until his death in 1848.
However, the wilderness did provide comfort, as biographer Charles Lanman wrote in 1856: "Many a time ... did that distinguished statesman spend the morning under the dome of the capitol in debate, and the afternoon of the same day in this romantic glen, listening to the singing of the birds, which had built their nests in the branches of his own trees."
The Rock (Creek) of Abraham
President Lincoln was a regular traveler into the wilderness just beyond the city. His family spent the warmer months at what we now call Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home (which also served as a summer retreat for Presidents Hayes and Arthur). After the death of son Willie in 1862, the President sometimes crossed Rock Creek on trips from the cottage to the boy's grave in Georgetown.
Lincoln frequently visited soldiers at Civil War fortifications now under Rock Creek Park jurisdiction. One route from the White House took him through the valley along old Piney Branch Road. When Confederate forces threatened the capital at 1864's Battle of Fort Stevens, the President was at the fort during both days of fighting. On the second day, rebel sharpshooters wounded a Union surgeon standing just a few feet from Lincoln inside Fort Stevens — making Abe the only US President to come under enemy fire while in office. The same day, he also made history as the only commander-in-chief to issue a battlefield order, directing the shelling of private homes where Confederate marksmen had found cover.
One of the generals commanding rebel troops during the battle was Kentucky's John Breckinridge, a former US Vice President and the cousin of Lincoln's wife Mary. He had also opposed Lincoln in the 1860 election, coming in second in the Electoral College.
More Executive Action
As a young man, James Madison traveled along the creek in 1769 on a journey from his Virginia home to study at Princeton.
Historians cast doubt on accounts that President Franklin Pierce was arrested for running over a woman while driving his carriage along country roads near Rock Creek. Those who stick with the story say the charges were dropped but the incident made Pierce the first US President caught up in a criminal offense.
Meridian Hill Park (part of the Rock Creek system) features a statue of President James Buchanan. The memorial was funded from the estate of his niece, who served as White House hostess for her bachelor uncle. Because many lawmakers questioned whether Buchanan merited a memorial, it took Congress 15 years to accept the bequest.
As a repeat visitor to the Brightwood racetrack overlooking Rock Creek, President Grant was no stranger to the area. His grandson, Ulysses S. Grant III, would oversee the park from 1926 until shortly before the National Park Service assumed control in 1933.
Grover Cleveland and his wife enjoyed carriage rides in the valley. During his first term, Cleveland signed the law creating the National Zoo along Rock Creek. He also donated a number of animals that went on exhibit there, including prairie dogs, mule deer, lynx and a golden eagle.
Andrew Johnson enjoyed picnicking near Peirce Mill. During his presidency, the Senate mandated a search for parkland where a new presidential mansion might be built. The report submitted in 1867 did not lead to a new White House. But it did promote Rock Creek valley as worthy of a national park — a concept that became law in 1890 with the signature of President Benjamin Harrison.
Did Washington Sleep Here?
And what about the Father of Our Country? George Washington's bio is full of legends, and some may be true. Perhaps a young Washington did cross Rock Creek at Milkhouse Ford during the French and Indian War. Maybe he camped at the mouth of the creek in preparation for the ill-fated campaign by British Major General Edward Braddock to capture Fort Duquesne. Despite persistent claims that first surfaced in the 1870s, we do know that Georgetown's Old Stone House was never General Washington's headquarters during the American Revolution. Still, the structure (under Rock Creek Park supervision) dates back to 1765, making it DC's oldest building.
George Washington was supposed to be honored each summer in Rock Creek Park. Carter Barron Amphitheatre was constructed in 1950 in order to stage an annual pageant about his life. However, the musical Faith of our Fathers lasted just two seasons.