Both Roosevelts made Rock Creek history — while for other 20th century Presidents, the park was a place for courting, golfing, riding and politicking.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote about the park in his autobiography: "When our children were little ... each Sunday afternoon the whole family spent in Rock Creek Park, which was then very real country indeed."
He also led frequent hikes with friends and soldiers: "Often ... we would arrange for a point to point walk, not turning aside for anything.... We like Rock Creek for these walks because we could do so much scrambling and climbing along the cliffs." One of his regular companions was French ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand, who was honored with his own memorial in 1936.
Teddy is often credited with naming Boulder Bridge. After losing a gold ring on an outing in 1902, the President placed a "Lost and Found" ad claiming the ring went missing "100 yards above boulder bridge." Today's park visitors hike nearby along the Theodore Roosevelt side trail.
Other stories about TR focus on his adventures skinny-dipping in Rock Creek and riding horses through the park. The President took a nasty fall in 1908 when his mount became frightened on the Broad Branch ford. Jumping from the saddle, he landed in the water "completely clear of the horse, and to that circumstance he probably owes his life." (Washington Post, 6/4/1908).
Sometimes Teddy was accompanied by his Secretary of War (and future President) William Howard Taft. Taft took delight in the Rock Creek wilderness, making frequent jaunts into the park during his long Washington career. The Connecticut Avenue Bridge was renamed in his honor in 1931. "Taft was a keen admirer of the structure," the Evening Star reported (4/9/1931). "He was often seen crossing it on foot in the course of his rambles about the Rock Creek Valley."
The Park Gets a New Deal
Initiatives by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s created much of the park infrastructure we see today through New Deal agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration. Unemployed Americans were put to work building footbridges, paths and horse trails; erecting the Park Police station and other buildings; planting trees and shrubs; renovating Peirce Mill, Klingle Mansion and Fort Stevens; and helping to construct Piney Branch Parkway.
Beginning in 1941, FDR would also tour Rock Creek by car with his long-time paramour Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd — but only when Eleanor was out of town.
Wooing and Zooing
Woodrow Wilson enjoyed walks and drives in the park, where he courted his second wife Edith in 1915. The chauffeur would drop them off along Ross Drive and the pair would stroll together through the woods. Shortly after leaving office in 1921, Wilson wrote a letter protesting the construction of the Rock Creek Golf Course. Nevertheless, President Warren Harding would inaugurate the course in 1923, shooting 102. Three decades later, the White House was occupied by avid golfer Dwight Eisenhower, who was known to tee off at the links in Rock Creek Park.
The Coolidge family was so fond of animals that their White House was sometimes called the Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo. Many of the creatures ended up along Rock Creek at the National Zoo, including a black bear, lion cubs and a hippo. The Coolidges also adopted a pet raccoon they named Rebecca — saving her from becoming part of a Thanksgiving meal. She was sent to the zoo after several escapes from the White House grounds.
Herbert Hoover lived up to the nickname "The Great Engineer" during park visits. On family picnics by the creek, he would recruit volunteers to help him construct miniature dams.
President Harry Truman attended the opening of the DC Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre in 1950, and returned in 1951 when it was dedicated to the late Carter Barron. Truman would also purchase flour and meal from Peirce Mill for use in the White House.
Though Jimmy Carter is said to have jogged in Rock Creek valley, he was so new to the nation's capital when he took office in 1977 that members of the press corps joked "President Carter knows so little about Washington he thinks Rock Creek Park is a Korean lobbyist."
Ronald Reagan occasionally rode horses on park trails and practiced horse jumping at the Equitation Field. When he was first elected, several Secret Service agents received expedited training in Rock Creek Park so they could protect him on horseback. Not all of the agents attained a suitable level of horsemanship.
Some of Bill Clinton's jogging trips took him into the park, where he would stop to shake hands and sign autographs. To promote Clean Water legislation in 1995, President Clinton used Peirce Mill as a backdrop, pointing out signs by the creek that warned of poisons and pollutants: "To those who say we have nothing more to do to clean up America's waterways, I urge them to come here to Peirce Mill and read the sign. We still have a lot of work to do on this, the most simple necessity of our lives, water."
President Barack Obama also went politicking within the Rock Creek system, promoting his highway plan in 2014 with a speech at Georgetown Waterfront Park.