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They wanted to do what to Rock Creek valley? Flood it, fill it in, pave it, load it with monuments? YGBK!


In an alternate universe, a visitor to Rock Creek Park might: go boating on the lake between Woodley Park and Military Road; drive along the Aspen Street overpass for a view of the Botanic Garden; visit every one of the park's 50 state museums; tour the handsome mansions on land reclaimed by channeling Rock Creek through an underground culvert; or head out of town on an expressway where Beach Drive is today.

Your reaction may be, "You gotta be kidding!" But the history of the park includes serious proposals that would have made all of that — and more — possible.

Rock Creek Lake

As civic leaders were promoting the establishment of Rock Creek Park during the 1880s, the DC official in charge of the city's water and sewage systems had a competing vision. Captain Richard Hoxie wanted the centerpiece of the park to be a reservoir four miles long. This artificial lake would be created by constructing a masonry dam 150 feet high above Georgetown. Hoxie estimated that about 1,300 acres would be flooded, but he considered nearly the entire expanse "worthless for any other purpose, being precipitous, rocky hillside, covered with thickets of laurel and small timber."

High Bridges and Fast Roads

In the first comprehensive plan for the park, Olmsted Brothers recommended a pair of tall bridges over Rock Creek. Their 1918 report called for these "high-level viaduct type" routes to carry cross-town traffic above the park instead of relying on at-grade crossings. By 1930, planning maps from the National Capital Park and Planning Commission had increased the number of spans to three. The northern bridge would have extended Aspen Street west to Western Avenue. The middle one would have taken Madison and Kennedy Streets west to Utah Avenue, so that Military Road remained an at-grade link with the park. The lower span was to bring Taylor and Upshur Streets west to both Linnean Avenue and a new road roughly following today's Melvin Hazen trail. Even as late as 1959, planning officials were endorsing a six-lane "Cross-Park Freeway" to be built above Melvin Hazen Park that connected Tenley Circle with a proposed "inner loop" freeway at T Street.

Highway planners also looked north and south, dreaming for decades about constructing an expressway along Rock Creek. The first major push came after Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was completed in 1936. Through the years, the proposals ranged from simply extending the parkway to using the right-of-way along the creek to build a high-speed route to what eventually became I-270. The fact that no highway was built is both a tribute to preservationists and to the difficulty of reaching an agreement among all the stakeholders — including DC and Maryland planners, the National Park Service, federal highway officials and the National Zoo.

Put it in a pipe

Another perennial proposal was to place part of lower Rock Creek into an underground channel, creating new development possibilities on the property above. DC officials fended off one of the earliest attempts in 1892. A Senate resolution instructed them to develop a plan to submerge the creek south of Massachusetts Avenue and estimate the value of the filled land. City engineers argued that debris could clog the underground channel, causing a back-up that might flood large parts of the District.

Even in the 20th century, one of the leading alternatives for Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was the so-called "closed-valley plan" in which much of the lower creek would be channeled into a conduit. The valley above would have been filled in to create a boulevard lined with stately homes.

Gardens and Museums

The Rock Creek Park system includes nearly two dozen monuments and memorials, including one within the actual park boundaries (the Jusserand Memorial honoring a longtime French ambassador). However, the park could have been crowded with monuments. A House bill in 1898 proposed building a series of "state exhibition buildings" in Rock Creek Park — essentially museums for each of the states. For more than 20 years thereafter, attempts were made to authorize such buildings somewhere in the DC area.

The United States Botanic Garden had a number of homes before moving to its present location near the US Capitol. To some influential lawmakers, Rock Creek Park seemed to be the perfect spot. Effective opposing voices came from the Commission of Fine Arts and from Olmsted Brothers, who argued in 1918 that "the inevitable result" would be "the gradual frittering away of a priceless and self-consistent piece of natural scenery."

The rest of the Rock Creek system was not immune to dubious schemes. For more than 40 years (until 1967), DC transportation plans called for a highway up Glover-Archbold Park. Various edifices were proposed for Meridian Hill, including a new presidential mansion, the Lincoln Memorial and a grand Lincoln arch to anchor a highway originating in Gettysburg.

These plans — and others — may seem so foolhardy today we can only give thanks they never were approved. But one project that did get built overlooking Rock Creek is guaranteed to inspire cries of "You gotta be kidding!"

Unlike today — when deer are overrunning the park — back in 1874 they had long been exterminated from the area. That's when Thomas Blagden decided to import some deer from the Adirondacks, breed them on 20 or 30 acres of his land on the east bank of Rock Creek, and sell the offspring to estate owners for their personal game parks. Washingtonians would travel up Piney Branch Road just to peer through the fence of the Blagden Deer Park to try to get a glimpse. Deer as exotic animals? Not kidding!


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