Many people see Rock Creek Park as just simply a park where children play, people picnic, run, bike, or hike, and people come together to have a good time and relax. While this is true, Rock Creek Park also has an elaborate and fascinating history that adds a uniqueness to the area that can be found nowhere else in the world. While many other national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon, stand out due to their natural beauty, Rock Creek’s establishment, additions, and historical background are what make it truly special. Whether it be the complications with the legislation needed to establish the park, the multiple archaeological sites that can be found throughout the park, the mysterious murder that occurred within the park premises, or the many other notable historical events within the park, Rock Creek truly differentiates itself from other national parks in the United States. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of the historical eccentricity that Rock Creek carries. Many authors discuss the tranquility, simplistic beauty, or the multitude of events that are currently held within Rock Creek Park. This essay, however, highlights the unknown history of the area and how this history makes Rock Creek Park a place unlike any other.
The Rock Creek area has been around and used since prehistory. Multiple archeological sites can be found within the park, all containing artifacts from numerous different eras throughout history. In “Human History,” a brief article written about the history of Rock Creek, the author touches upon these sites and explains that anything from weapons, to ancient stone tools, to evidence of Native American settlements and other campsites can be found within the park. The author also mentions how some of these sites have aided historians in understanding exactly when humans first appeared in America, using the artifacts left over to determine the time period in which humans first showed up. Rock Creek was also inhabited by Europeans starting in the early 1700’s. Trading posts and mills were built within the park area and were used up until shortly after Rock Creek was officially established as a national park, which occurred in the late 1800’s(“Human History”).
This is an image of one of the mills that was built by the European settlers in the early 1800’s. This mill in particular is called Pierce Mill, and is a prominent historical landmark of Rock Creek Park, although it has not been functional since the late 1800’s(Mackintosh, ch. 2).
While the park was used by European settlers early in its history, the area’s popularity grew exponentially when legislation surrounding the formation of Rock Creek Park started coming to Congress. In his book, Rock Creek Park: An Administrative History, author Barry Mackintosh explains that the interest in creating the park first came about because of the lack of space and privacy in the White House for the president and his family. The park was initially wanted as a space to build an executive mansion as well as a place for people to go and appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the park. However, the bill asking for the money to fix Rock Creek into a park was not initially passed in the house due to the financial situation of the United States at the time. The Senate agreed to the bill, but people in the House of Representatives didn’t believe that the formation of the park was going to be as inexpensive as everyone claimed so they did not allow the bill to pass. This veto stopped the creation of the park for a short while. A few other bills were brought to Congress regarding the formation of the park, but were once again vetoed by the House of Representatives until one day the bill gained enough public and congressional support to be passed(Mackintosh, ch.1).
Once Rock Creek was an official national park, popularity boomed once again with the park even catching the eye of some former presidents of the United States. President Teddy Roosevelt would often visit the park for a variety of different activities including, taking long and difficult hikes along park trails, and going horseback riding through the area. He was even known to skinny dip in the stream from time to time. President Roosevelt would often bring the French ambassador Jules Jusserand along with him on his park trips because the ambassador also enjoyed spending some free time within the park. In addition to President Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson would also frequent the park while he was in office, usually accompanied by his second wife. The two would picnic, play tennis, or take leisurely drives along the parkway to wind down from their busy presidential schedule. While some presidents have visited other national parks as well, few parks have been so frequented and so well loved by presidents as Rock Creek Park has(“Human History”).
This image shows President Truman visiting Rock Creek Park for the opening and dedication of the Carton Barron Amphitheater that is within the park.
Despite the many positive aspects, Rock Creek Park’s history is not all pleasant. The area has not been without its fair share of challenges over the years. Mackintosh discusses the formation of Rock Creek (the waterway) and the Potomac Parkway in regards to Rock Creek Park and its integrity. There were many issues that first arose with the formation of Rock Creek. Mackintosh states that some persons in the Senate wished to turn one of the segments of Rock Creek into a closed sewer essentially. There was already sewage leaking into that area of the creek, and the Senate believed that it would be best just to close off that section of the creek and allow the area to become a closed sewage landfill. Numerous individuals in charge of preserving and maintaining the park severely opposed this idea due to the environmental impact it would have on the park. A closed sewer would also add in an unwanted eyesore to the national park that may discourage people from wanting to go into that area of the park. The formation of the Potomac Parkway, the roadway that was built in and around some areas of Rock Creek Park, was also a major concern for some individuals in regards to the environmental impact that the roadway, and the cars used on the roadway, would have on the park. A special cabinet of individuals was formed to choose land for the road in and around the park that would minimize the amount of pollution going into the park(Mackintosh, ch.3).
Rock Creek has also had to deal with some unplanned challenges throughout its history. In 2002, the body of a missing Capitol Hill intern was found in Rock Creek Park. When the remains were found, there was nothing left of the body but bones, which were used to identify the body as Chandra Levy, the intern that had gone missing slightly over a year before. Although many individuals that live in the D.C. area are aware of this murder and the continuing mystery around what actually happened to Chandra Levy, some people may not know that her body was found in Rock Creek Park. This murder adds an air of mystery to the area of Rock Creek because the case was never solved, so no one knows what really happened to Ms. Levy in Rock Creek Park when she went missing. This murder also brought attention to the deaths of two other interns from the past because of their eerie similarities(Farina, n.p.).
This is a link to the episode of the TV series entitled “Unsolved Mysteries with Dennis Farina” from which the article about the murder was written. The episode features a few different cases, but the Chandra Levy case starts at minute 10:38 and goes on for about ten minutes and explains the details of the case and their lackluster conclusions.
Rock Creek Park, while both serene and full of excitement and people on most days, is more than just the average national park. Rock Creek has a rich and mostly unknown history that makes the area extremely unique. The legislation surrounding the establishment of the park is complicated and the additions in and around the park tested the integrity of the area, yet the park held through it all. From presidential visits to murder investigations, Rock Creek Park has had its ups and downs, but it is still beloved by all who use it. The historical background of Rock Creek Park is truly unlike any other national park in the country. In the heart of D.C., the park has seen it all. Although many people are not aware of the park’s past, knowing the details of the history enhance the experience of visiting the park. Being able to look around the area and see the history all around makes individuals really and truly appreciate everything that Rock Creek Park has to offer.
Farina, Dennis. “Joyce Chiang: The Murder of a D.C. Intern Echoes Two Other Murders.” Unsolved, http://unsolved.com/archives/joyce-chiang.
“Human History.” Rock Creek Conservancy, http://www.rockcreekconservancy.org/rock-creek-parks/history. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
Mackintosh, Barry. Rock Creek Park: An Administrative History. National Park Service: Department of the Interior, 1985, https://www.nps.gov/rocr/learn/historyculture/adhit.htm.