Teddy Roosevelt's island memorial
Another hidden treasure
I have written about several Washington-area treasures that are “hidden in plain sight.” Two examples are the towering George Washington National Memorial in Alexandria and the historic Fort Lesley J. McNair, home of the National War College that stands proudly at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers in southwest D.C. Another such site, as familiar as it invisible to Kennedy Center visitors and travelers on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, is Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88.5 acre wildlife preserve and virtually unknown national memorial in honor of the 26th American president.
Pedestrian access (no bicycles or other wheeled vehicles are allowed) to this obscure memorial to the first president to make conservation a national priority is via a walkway across the Virginia-side channel of the Potomac,
from a parking lot just north of Roosevelt Bridge and accessible only from the northbound lane of the GW Parkway. You could also bike there on the Mount Vernon Bike Path, or it's a short walk on the path, which is only a few blocks north of the Rosslyn Metro stop.
WIldlife preserve in the Potomac
That it is a wildlife refuge under the care of the National Park Service is a fitting tribute to Teddy Roosevelt, who established five national parks and brought nearly 230 million acres under federal protection during his presidency.
In the mid 17th century, Nacotchtank Indians briefly inhabited the island they called Anacostine, but in short order, Lord Baltimore gave the island to Randolph Brandt, a captain in the Maryland Militia, as a reward for his service.
George Mason bought the island
Now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island, the wildlife preserve in the Potomac River between Rosslyn and the Kennedy Center was long known as Mason’s Island, home to George Mason’s grandson John, who farmed the island. Union troops briefly occupied the island during the Civil War, but after the Masons left in 1832, the island passed through several owners before the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association bought it in 1931. The next year, the association transferred title to the federal government to create the memorial.
The Mason mansion was largely destroyed by fire early in the 20th century and now only part of the foundation remains.
The Roosevelt Memorial
The memorial to the “Great Conservationist” comprises a natural landscape that includes woodland, marsh and swamp on the fall line of the Potomac, and a memorial plaza with a 17-foot statue of Roosevelt toward the north end of the island. The plaza originally was planned for the southern end with a view of some of the monuments, but the decision to build the Roosevelt Bridge at that end caused a change in plans.
The large plaza, which comes as a great surprise to the uninformed visitor wandering the woodland, includes Paul Manship’s bronze statue of Roosevelt, his arm raised as if in mid-declamation. Four 21-foot high granite tablets near Roosevelt’s statue display quotations from his writings.
The statue overlooks a large granite-paved plaza embellished with two large fountains. Footbridges across the surrounding moat provide access to the plaza and statue.
Unnatural natural flora
While the landscape appears to be natural, renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and an associate, Henry Hubbard, returned the farmland to woodland that represents the forests that originally covered islands in the Potomac, and about two and a half miles of paths and trails that meander through the island. From 1934-1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared the island and replanted about 20,000 native trees and bushes. The work was halted during World War II, but completed shortly after.
Today, some non-native species have invaded, but spring wildflowers abound and throughout the year a variety of birds make it an attractive destination for bird-watchers.
It's a bird! It's a plane!
Walking through the serene woodland, with small animals scurrying nearby, or along the boardwalk that stretches across marshland, allowing visitors to enjoy the flora and fauna with dry feet, it is easy to imagine that you are far from an urban area. Mostly at sea level, much of the island floods several times a year, especially in the spring. The mansion house was on the high point of the island was about 44-feet above sea level.
From time to time an airplane flies over the boardwalk as a reminder that civilization is not too distant, but more often it is a heron. Approaching the east side of the island, the Kennedy Center and Georgetown appear just across the main channel of the Potomac, as surprising as a close-range mirage.
Approaching the southern end of the island, though, the sound of ocean waves is revealed as traffic on the Roosevelt Bridge that looms unfortunately close and intrusively large, violating the idyllic atmosphere of the woodland.
Roosevelt Island is open every day, from dawn to dusk.