With Presidents Day Weekend just around the corner, we here at Rock Creek Conservancy figured it’s a great time to share Rock Creek Park’s presidential past with you. And while numerous presidents have spent time in the park, Theodore Roosevelt is undoubtedly the commander in chief who has spent the most. From 1901 to 1909, America’s twenty-sixth president could often be found in the Rock Creek Park hiking, horseback riding, birding, and picnicking with his family.
No one has enjoyed the presidency more than I have," Theodore Roosevelt said towards the end of his administration. The youthful, exerciser-in-chief also perhaps enjoyed Rock Creek Park more than any other president."
1) Maintaining a Presidential Pace
Roosevelt (1858–1919) was known for his boundless energy, and this showed on his fast-paced hikes. “We liked Rock Creek Park because we could do much scrambling and climbing along the cliffs,” Roosevelt noted. “We would arrange for a point to point walk, not turning aside for anything—for instance, swimming Rock Creek…if it came in our way.” Roosevelt often trekked through the park in winter and early spring “when the ice was floating thick upon” the creek.
The president often went hiking with his good friend, French ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand, who was apparently one of only a few people that could actually keep up with him. Indeed, when naturalist John Burroughs trekked with Roosevelt through the park, Burroughs complained that “we saw no birds. They couldn’t keep up with us. I haven’t walked at such a pace in years.”
According to Dickinson State University's Theodore Roosevelt Center, this photo depicts the president and others climbing up Rock Creek Park's Pulpit Rock.
2) Birds of a Tail Feather
But Roosevelt did give time to the study of birds; he was perhaps the only president in U.S. history to be an avid birder. When Roosevelt wasn’t rigorously hiking through the park, he was rigorously birding in the park. He observed large quantities of wood thrush (today the District of Columbia’s official bird), redheaded woodpeckers, and brown-headed cowbirds on one specific outing.
Historic Minnie E. Brooke postcard. "When our children were little, we were for several winters in Washington, and each Sunday afternoon the whole family spent in Rock Creek Park, which was then very real country indeed," recalled Theodore Roosevelt. How I wish I could go back and spend a day exploring the park during this early era.
3) One Ring
One incident occurred in the summer of 1902 when an all-gold ring Roosevelt was wearing slipped off his finger. He and his riding partner, Leonard Wood, then the governor-general of Cuba, backtracked their path and searched for the ring, but to no avail. A couple of weeks later, a large group searched for the ring to bring back to the president, but also to no avail.
Roosevelt lost a ring near Boulder Bridge which has never been found.
4) Par for the Horse
Regarding horseback, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt often went horseback riding in Rock Creek Park. The duo was usually accompanied by Cavalry officer Cornelius McDermott, who rode a few trots behind to give the president and first lady some privacy. On at least one occasion Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt enjoyed a quiet Thanksgiving ride through the sylvan woods, but on at least two other occasions the president was thrown off his horse—both times at practically the exact same location at a ford near Boulder Bridge. The first of these incidents led to a bloody-faced Theodore Roosevelt, and the second involved an “untried horse” getting spooked in the water. The horse jumped up on its hind legs but slipped at the same time. Before the horse fell backwards onto its back, the alert Roosevelt was able to jump off, probably saving himself from very serious injury. Nevertheless, while landing in the water helped break his fall, Rock Creek was only running two-feet deep at the location and was also full of boulders; the president bruised in several places.
Roosevelt with famous California conservationist John Muir atop Glacier Point Lookout in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Falls in the background.
5) No NPS, No Problem
With his passion for the great outdoors and strenuous exercise, many people think that Theodore Roosevelt established the National Park Service (NPS), but the NPS was established in 1916 during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt did, however, protect more acres of federal land in the form of national forests, national monuments and national wildlife refuges than any other president in U.S. history. “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance,” he wrote.
Just across from the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River in Georgetown, Theodore Roosevelt Island honors the life and legacy of our outdoorsy, conservation-minded president of 1901-1909. The island is administered by George Washington Memorial Parkway, a separate unit of the National Park System. In Rock Creek Park proper, however, the Theodore Roosevelt Trail, constructed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in the late 1970s, parallels the Valley Trail just south of the secluded Pulpit Rock. Although the trail is not long, Roosevelt would be happy in that his namesake trail is narrow and has some steep, technical spots.
. Edward J. Renehan Jr., “Portrait of a Friendship,” New York State archives, winter 2004, 22, http://www.archives.nysed.gov/apt/magazine/archivesmag_winter04.pdf.
. Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan Company, 1916), 47.
. Quoted in Renehan, “Portrait of a Friendship.”
. Roosevelt, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, 384. Roosevelt actually dedicated this book to John Burroughs, whom he referred to affectionately as “uncle.”
. Washington Post, “Search for President’s Ring: Small Army of Men and Boys Scoured Rock Creek Bank,” July 16, 1902, ProQuest Online.
. Washington Post, “President Has Quiet Day,” November 27, 1908, ProQuest Online; Washington Post, “Leap Saves President: Mr. Roosevelt Put in Peril of Life by Horse; Thrown at Rock Creek Park,” June 4, 1908, ProQuest Online.
Scott Einberger, an environmental historian, author, and public lands enthusiast, is Rock Creek Conservancy’s project manager for the downspout disconnection program. Visit www.publiclandslover.weebly.com to see more of his writing.