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Washingtonians flock to Rock Creek Park on weekends to bike, hike, picnic, and enjoy nature. The park will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year, but its history goes back much further, from the Native Americans who fished and hunted here to the Europeans who built flour mills on the creek. The Civil War raged in the area around Rock Creek Valley, and the park was a favorite spot of President Teddy Roosevelt’s. Today, although flora and fauna thrive, the park is also challenged by pollution and invasive species. We explore the park’s past and present.
- Melanie Choukas-Bradley Author, "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC", and "City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, DC, Third Edition; Tour leader, Audubon Naturalist Society, Casey Trees and the Nature Conservancy.
- Scott Einberger Environmental historian; author, "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness and Washington, DC"
A Look Inside Rock Creek Park
Click through the slideshow below for snapshots of all seasons from photographer Susan Austin Roth.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Labor Day Weekend means getting outside, and for many Washingtonians, that means heading for our own forested backyard, Rock Creek Park. It was designated a national park in 1890, one of the country's first. But its history goes back much farther, from the Native Americans who fished and hunted in the Rock Creek Valley to the European settlers who built mills on the creek. Next year, the park celebrates its 125th anniversary.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss Rock Creek Park's past, present, and future, is Scott Einberger. He's an environmental historian and a federal government employee. He's the author of the book, "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness and Washington, DC." Scott Einberger joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. SCOTT EINBERGERThank you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Melanie Choukas-Bradley. She's a naturalist and the author of "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC," which comes out later this fall. She's also a long-time contributor to the Washington Post and she leads nature walks for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Melanie Choukas-Bradley, thank you for joining us.
MS. MELANIE CHOUKAS-BRADLEYThank you. It's great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. If you spend time in Rock Creek Park, what's your favorite part of the park? 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. And if you do go to our website, you're probably likely to see photos from Melanie's book there at our website, kojoshow.org. Melanie, this park is something of a refuge, for you and for all of us. Can you talk about the role of the park in Washington life?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYOh, my goodness. I -- well the subtitle of my book is "The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC," and I think that says it all. We are so fortunate here that right down the middle of our city we have this beautiful stream valley that was protected as a park back in 1890. And it just serves as a refuge for all of us who love to hike and walk and bicycle and study nature and just sit and contemplate the beauty of life. We have it all right in the middle of our city.
NNAMDIBragging rights. My friends in New York like to talk about Central Park. How does Rock Creek Park compare in size to Central Park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, I love Central Park too. Well, in size, Rock Creek Park is actually twice the size.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYDid you hear that? Yes. So, yes, Kojo, twice the size of Central Park. And I love Central Park. When I go to New York, the first place I go is Central Park. In fact, my son, Jessie, lives in New York City and he spends a lot of time in Central Park.
NNAMDII used to live on Central Park West at one time.
NNAMDII love Central Park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYThat's great. But, you know, the parks are very different. Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed the Capitol grounds here in Washington. And it's a cultivated park. It does have wild places, like The Ramble. But it's much more of a cultivated park. Whereas the Rock Creek Stream Valley is quite wild. And one of the things I love about it is these trees have been left alone since 1890. And we have an incredible tree canopy, which you can really appreciate on a hot summer day. You walk into the forest, it's almost like walking into an air-conditioned room.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about your book, "A Year in Rock Creek Park." What made you decide to write about the park?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, you know, I was thinking about it. I think -- I always seem to write books about my backyard. I wrote my first book, "City of Trees," when my husband Jim and I were living on Capitol Hill many years ago. And it's now out in its third edition. Then we moved out to Sugarloaf Mountain, which is another one of my favorite refuges, and I wrote two books about Sugarloaf. And I am really a country girl. I'm from Vermont. But my family wanted to be closer to schools and work in the city. And they kind of dragged me away from Sugarloaf kicking and screaming.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd I wasn't a real happy camper until I discovered Rock Creek Park. And that made all the difference to me. I'll never forget the first time I walked over Boundary Bridge, which is the part of the park that I consider my part of Rock Creek Park. We all feel very possessive of our parts of the park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd I walked over the bridge and walked along the flood plain under the tall sycamores and tulip trees and cottonwoods. And then I started climbing into the upland woods. And I noticed how the trail made this big curve. And it looked like a mountain trail. It looked like a switchback on a mountain trail. And I thought, living in the city is going to be okay.
NNAMDIAs the title says, you spent a year exploring Rock Creek Park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI did. I did. My year of record is 2007. And I spent the whole year visiting the park almost every day, in the snow, in the rain, all through the seasons, recording the beauty of the winter trees and the, you know, the tulip trees against the sky -- the fruit of the tulip trees, the little winged seeds against the sky are so beautiful -- and beech trees in the winter. And then the park, you know, under a snowfall is just absolutely spectacular. So I recorded winter observations. And then I described the blooming of the skunk cabbage, which is one of my favorite plants -- and the spring wildflowers, the Virginia bluebells and the trout lilies and spring beauties. And then the summer and the beauty of the fall foliage and the acorns and hickories and so forth.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYSo I spent a whole year. And the book is largely, you know, filled with joyful nature reveries. But I also have a thread of concern running through the book -- a concern about how storm-water runoff affects the creek -- concern about the problem, really serious problem with invasive plants, which is something people can get involved in helping to mitigate -- and also my concerns about climate change. I actually -- the first entry in my book is New Year's Day 2007. And I don't know if you remember, but that was a very weird winter. We had a warm December. There were actually daffodils blooming in Washington at Christmas time, which was pretty disturbing.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd then my husband and I were walking on New Year's Day and it was a beautiful winter day. It was a little on the warm side. But we walked into the upland woods and I looked down and I saw these little green leaves on the forest floor. And then I noticed there were flower buds on them. And the flower buds were starting to open. And those were spring beauty flowers, which should bloom in March and April...
CHOUKAS-BRADLEY...not January 1st. So I thought, you know, I really want to write about my love of the park, but I also want to write about my concerns, which, you know, if you spend a lot of time out in nature, you very closely observe changes. And those of us who are naturalists and who do spend a lot of time in Rock Creek Park and other wild areas are noticing some very disturbing changes.
NNAMDIMelanie Choukas-Bradley, she's a naturalist and the author of "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC." It comes out later this fall. If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, this book is illustrated with beautiful color photos by photographer Susan Austin Roth. You can see a slideshow of those photos at our website, kojoshow.org. Also joining us in studio, Scott Einberger. He's an environmental historian and a federal government employee. He's the author of "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness and Washington, DC." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What wildlife have you seen in the park? Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIScott, Rock Creek Park has a long and fascinating history that goes back well before it was even designated as a park. And your book details that history. How did you get interested in writing about the park?
EINBERGERIt does. And first off, thanks for having me here, Kojo.
EINBERGERGood to meet you. And good to meet you, Melanie. I am -- I'm an environmental historian. So I'm passionate about learning more about public lands, whether they're National Park System lands or U.S. Forest Service lands. But I've always been essentially a kid on Christmas Day when I'm visiting national park units in particular, vacationing, studying in them. In moving here in D.C., I've had -- I've been in the park often. And I ride my bike there -- I ride my bike through the park to work every day. When I'm not in the park riding my bike, on weekends I'm hiking with my dog through the park.
EINBERGERSo I wrote the book for several reasons. One of the main reasons, though, is that there's dozens of great books on D.C. history. A lot of them -- a lot of books on the National Mall area, which a lot of times people refer to as the monumental core. A lot of books about the downtown area. A lot of issues about -- a lot of books about race. A lot of great books. What's been, what only gets mentioned in snidbits is, in my opinion, the most important and beautiful place in the city, Rock Creek Park. And so with my passion for parks and in the environment and just wanting to learn more, and with a three-week furlough last fall, that I was able to do some significant research on, the product was the book.
NNAMDILet's go back a bit, before we go to the phones, in the region's history. You start with the native tribes who lived around this region. How long has this valley, now known as Rock Creek Park, been inhabited?
EINBERGERThousands of years, up until the mid- to late-1600s, it was -- yeah, it was American Indians or Native Americans. And they often didn't live in the Rock Creek Valley year-round. They were -- they hunted and fished the creek and gathered beechnuts from the beech tree and other nuts. But they weren't there year-round. And then beginning in the mid- to late-1600s, European-Americans came into the land. And ever since, the Rock Creek Valley has been gaining more development and prestige.
NNAMDIThere was a fascinating discovery recently. Can you tell us about Whitehurst Woman?
EINBERGERYeah. So archeologists discovered the remains of a young woman underneath the Whitehurst Freeway, Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway area, in that area of the parkway. And what they uncovered from this site -- it was a burial site, and it had several stone pendants, beads, and one of the main things was that it had several great white shark teeth. So this is more archeology, of course, a little bit out of my field.
EINBERGERBut from what archeologists found in the -- in that site, they realized that the American Indians living in Rock Creek Park were not stagnant. They didn't just stay in this area. If they had teeth from "Jaws," so to speak, then they were certainly trading or perhaps even going out to -- down the Chesapeake or down the Potomac or down to what we call today the Eastern Shore.
NNAMDII best go to the phones because they're piling up. And Donald in Washington, D.C., has a question, I think for you, Melanie. Donald, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DONALDThank you, Kojo. I'm a native-plant enthusiast. And I just feel like there isn't enough information about native plants in Washington, D.C., not out in Maryland and Virginia. What do we have to look forward to in Rock Creek Park in the way of flowering native plants?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYou want to know about the specific plants that you can see there? Is that what you're asking?
DONALDThat would be a good place to start.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYes. Well, the flora of Rock Creek Park is incredibly diverse. As you know -- I'm sure you know, since you know so much about plants, we're right on the boundary of the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont here. So we have a very diverse flora. And the trees are, you know, the forest has got many species of oaks, at least three species of hickory. The trees you find in a bottom-land forest like sycamore, ironwood, river birch, pawpaw, bladdernut. It's just rich with the trees that you would expect to find in a flood plain forest and also in the upland woods.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYSo you have a variety of habitats in the park. The habitats near the -- in the bottom of the stream valley and then in the upland woods are very different. You can -- I hiked yesterday on the Theodore Roosevelt trail which goes up to Pulpit Rock. It's a wonderful short trail that goes up through a forest of heath family members. There's trailing arbutus there. There's mountain laurel. There's a beautiful beach forest there. You'll find several species of native viburnum in the park, maple leaf viburnum. I saw that in fruit along that trail yesterday, the blackhaw viburnum, the arrowwood viburnum.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd then there's a wealth of wildflowers blooming from very early spring all through the summer. A lot of people are surprised to know how many flowers bloom in the summer and in the fall. Right now a lot of the aster family plants are coming into bloom. So along Rock Creek itself you'll see these tall flowers called wingstem. They've got these leafy wings going down the stem. And they have large yellow flower heads. There's a lavender flower called mist flower that's blooming now along the creek.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIn the upland forest, you'll find whitewood aster and bluestem goldenrods starting to bloom. And then, there's jewel weed all along the creek, jewel weed attracts hummingbirds.
NNAMDIAnd Donald, you should know that Melanie is not consulting with any notes whatsoever. This is the encyclopedia of Rock Creek plants in her head. Go ahead, please.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, I think for those of us who love Rock Creek Park, we visit it every chance we get. And, you know, I'm a big believer. I love to travel. I love to go to distant places and especially, Scott, I love to go to national parks. But, you know, I think knowing what is in your backyard is the most important thing of all. And it brings you the most sustenance throughout the year if you really become familiar with your backyard. And in our case, our backyard is Rock Creek Park. It just brings you so much joy throughout the years because the seasonal changes are amazing. The studios here are right on Rock Creek Park.
NNAMDIOh yeah, my office overlooks Rock Creek Park. And I think that's why we moved here actually.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIsn't that amazing?
NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you have comments or questions about Rock Creek Park. Do you have questions for Scott, for Melanie? What do you think should be done about invasive species in our region, a conversation that we'll be having during the course of this hour? You can also send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing Rock Creek Park in Washington with Melanie Choukas-Bradley. She's a naturalist and the author of "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild Wooded Heart of Washington, D.C." It comes out later this fall. Melanie's also a long time contributor to the Washington Post. She also leads nature walks for the Audubon Naturalist Society. She is joined in studio by Scott Einberger. He's an environmental historian and a federal government employee, author of the book "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness in Washington, D.C."
NNAMDIIf you have any questions about the history or current activity in Rock Creek Park, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Scott, can you talk about the next phase of Rock Creek Valley, when European settlers arrived in the first cultivated land along Rock Creek and how Georgetown got its name?
EINBERGERSo there's actually -- there's essentially two Rock Creek Parks today. There's the main Rock Creek Park, 1750 some odd acre stem basically in between 16th Street on the East and Broad Ranch Road on the west, which is what a lot of people are familiar with. Rock Creek Park is an administrative unit of the National Park Service. The staff of the park oversee almost 100 other park units outside of that main stem. So a lot of them are in Georgetown like Montrose and Dumbarton Oaks Parks.
EINBERGERThe Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway is a natural extension of the park but that's of course managed by the park staff. Old Stone House as well. So after European Americans -- or excuse me, after American Indians got pushed out and a lot died of disease, after that happened Georgetown -- the mouth of Rock Creek where it meets the Potomac became overtime a major port city, a major hub of commercial life. You had farmers transporting tobacco and wheat but essentially -- primarily tobacco down to Georgetown to be sent overseas to the European markets.
EINBERGERAnd then on the other end of it you had African American slaves from west Africa being sent right over to -- right into Georgetown. A lot of people would be surprised to know that Georgetown is actually a slave -- they had slave markets. They had auction blocks in Georgetown. Georgetown Waterfront Park, which is a beautiful hip new park today, prior to it being a park 150, 200, 250 years ago, it was a heavy commercial industrial area.
NNAMDIHow did it get its name? How did it get the name Georgetown?
EINBERGERThat is debatable. Some people -- I think most people say it was named after the king of -- one of the kings of England at the time, George, I don't remember which number.
NNAMDIThere were six of them.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYSorry, I can't help you, Scott.
NNAMDIThere were six of them.
EINBERGERSome people say it was named after our George Washington. That wouldn't have made much sense because the town was actually founded in 1751, 50 years prior to the founding of Washington, District of Columbia. And there are some other theories too.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We got an email from Laura who says, "Living in northwest Washington, D.C. I consider Rock Creek Park my backyard and I use the park on a regular basis, mostly for the exact reasons your guest Melanie is discussing. I do have a question in regards to the wonderful effort of closing a portion of Beach Drive for recreation for all. My thought and my concern is the condition of the roadway paving. It's getting nearly dangerous to have to maneuver around all the patchwork paving and potholes. Is there anything we can do to inspire the park service to repave at least the recreation portion of Beach Drive," Melanie?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYOh gosh, I don't feel equipped to answer that. Do you have any thoughts about that, Scott?
NNAMDIWell, as somebody who rides in the park, (unintelligible) there's...
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYeah, have you noticed that, Kojo? Yeah.
NNAMDI...been a significant deterioration in some parts of the parts of the park (unintelligible)...
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI think -- isn't it -- does it have to do with the terrible winter we had?
NNAMDII think it has to do with the weather, the fact that these road -- that road in particular is shared during the course of the week Monday through Friday by all kinds of other vehicles. And then on Saturday it's closed to those vehicles and bicycles have to take over. And then people begin to notice that there're problems in the road. But I guess that's a problem that the National Park Service probably knows about.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYeah, that's a shame.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. There are people who think that Rock Creek may not be large enough. Here is Acash in the Washington, D.C. Acash, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ACASHHi, Kojo. I lived in northwest and I used to just go down my block and walk through Rock Creek into the shade and see animals and enjoy fresh air.
NNAMDIBut now you have moved, right?
ACASHNow I'm in northeast where we have one-fifth the park space areas like Harewood Road or wetlands that catholic university is planning to develop. We have interest in the underground 20 acres at McMillan Park to form underground agriculture. And a possible -- we have an idea for a Wolf Trap type national park at McMillan. But our area, Kojo, is underserved. And we would like to hear the guests advocate for saving McMillan Park, stopping the development by one of your sponsors, EYA.
NNAMDINot going there today. We'll be discussing McMillan Park in October with our architect Roger Lewis. But it is an issue that provokes a great deal of passion on both sides of the issue. And I had no idea you were going there. I thought you wanted Rock Creek Park extended to northeast. Most Washingtonians, Melanie, are probably unaware that Rock Creek Park continues into Maryland. And Rock Creek Park, Md. today is actually more than twice the size of the park in the district.
NNAMDICan you talk about that?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYes. We're so fortunate because, well, in 1890 the main part of the park was created in D.C. And then in the 1930s, Montgomery County had the great wisdom to begin saving Stream Valley Parks, which are such an important part of the park system in Montgomery County today. And the Maryland part of the park extends way upstream. You can actually ride your bicycle from the D.C./Maryland line all the way up to Lake Needwood on a really wonderful bike path.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd I actually -- I wrote an article for Bethesda magazine a few years ago. And Susan Austin Roth who created the beautiful photographs for the Rock Creek Park book, she did the photos for this piece. And we followed the creek -- our assignment was to follow the creek from the D.C. line to the source up on the Laytonsville Gold Course. And the publisher of Bethesda magazine Steve Hall said, travel anyway you want by bicycle, on foot or by canoe. And I took the canoe part literally and actually canoed under the beltway, which I do not recommend.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI did this with Steve Dryden, who you may know. I think he's been a guest on your program.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYHe's the author of a book about Peirce Mill and he's been very involved in the renovation of the mill. And he and I put in a canoe right under the beltway and we could hear all the beltway traffic over our shoulders. And we saw, you know, a lot of trash hanging, like plastic Spanish moss from the trees. But we also saw, you know, the beautiful wild Rock Creek Park. And you can follow it way up into Maryland.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd as you get further north, as you would expect, the water quality is better because it's -- you know, you get up above Route 28 in Rockville and the water is a lot clearer up there. It's really a lovely trip. It's a great trip to make on a bicycle. And then, like, Needwood is a great place too, Lake Needwood and Lake Frank. And you can go up there and canoe around the lake. So that's a lot easier than canoeing under the beltway.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned Peirce Mill because, Scott, everyone from presidents to ordinary citizens all have enjoyed the park over the decades. And Peirce Mill is an example of a successful mill that operated there. But John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, owned a mill in Rock Creek also. But unlike others nearby like Peirce Mill, his was apparently not successful.
EINBERGERIt was not. So John Quincy Adams purchased a mill technically on zoo property now. There's essentially no remnant of it except a wayside exhibit across the creek from it on the multiuse trail. But John Quincy Adams purchased a mill in the 1820s about a mile south of Peirce Mill on the creek. And for a number of factors, it failed -- it very much failed.
EINBERGEROne of the issues was that he was unable to find a good miller and mill manager. In fact, one of his wife's -- his wife's cousin, excuse me, was in debt at the time. And as a favor to the family they got him the job as mill manager. But he had a lot of issues. He went in debt again. The money John Quincy Adams gave to this person to run the mill, he was using it for other things for personal profit. So it did not work out well.
EINBERGERThere's also a connection there between the two mills, Peirce Mill and Adams Mill.
EINBERGERPeirce Mill, if you go in it today, is what's -- it's design is known as a Evans style automated mill. It was a cutting edge technology for the time in that this person Oliver Evans created this mill that instead of being run by four to six people, could be run by a half a person. They had automatic grain elevators and automatic hopper boy, which is essentially a grain cooling machine. However, this was the early days of the U.S. patent system. Oliver Evans had U.S. patent number 2 or 3 signed by none other than Thomas Jefferson.
EINBERGERThe Adams Mill, the mill manager apparently used the Evans style mill without compensating or telling Evans. So there was actually -- Evans filed a lawsuit and there was some drama there as well. Peirce Mill did not have that fate.
NNAMDIOn now to Trish in Chevy Chase, Md. Trish, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRISHGood morning. Rock Creek Park was literally my backyard. I grew up in North Chevy Chase and from my parents' home it went straight back forest all the way to the creek. And we grew up with having different areas of the park that we used to play in. One was Swingland, which you can understand. Another -- the other was Greenland which was a -- I don't know how large because I was a kid but a large area of land that had trees all around it and it was filled with Moss.
TRISHAnd that was our favorite because, you know, you could lay on the moss and look up at these trees. It was our personal property because it was our backyard. And then we were crushed when they put in 495.
TRISHThey took a big chunk of Rock Creek Park and it was worth crying over because we loved it. And my kids couldn't have Greenland anymore, so I was quite sad about that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. A lot of history there also, Scott, because right now we don't have a four-lane highway running through the park. But those decisions go back to the new deal. Can you talk about that and how it affected the park and its development?
EINBERGERWell, I was just going to say that. There were proposals from the late '30s well into the '60s for essentially an interstate highway to run from the National Mall up through Rock Creek Park, just like Beach Drive does today. Eventually that was debated and the plan for the highway shifted over to where Oregon Avenue is today. And luckily conservationists at the time won in that regard and there is no four-lane highway running the length of the park. There are a lot of large crossroads and traffic is still a major issue in the park. But at least there's not that main artery.
NNAMDIHere is Philip in Silver Spring, Md. Philip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHILIPYeah, I was wondering, are there any original old growth trees in there? What are the oldest trees? What are the biggest trees in Rock Creek?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, there are some very old trees in the park. Scott may know specifically how old the oldest are. But some of the oldest that I know are -- there's a very old white oak. If you go to the Rock Creek Nature Center, which I believe is very familiar to you, Scott, and then you walk toward Fort DeRussy, which is a great place to visit. It's a Civil War fort right in the middle of Rock Creek Park that's very easily accessed. And there's a walkway from the Rock Creek Nature Center down to Fort DeRussy. And it goes by this very, very old white oak.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIn the Boundary Bridge area of Rock Creek Park, which is a place I know so well, there are some huge tulip trees. Now the tulip tree is a fairly fast-growing tree. And, you know, unless core samples are done, I don't think you can tell just by looking how old they are. There are also some extremely old northern red oaks in that part of the park. So, you know, I don't think you could consider Rock Creek Park an old growth forest per say.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYBut the fact that the park was set aside in 1890 and these trees have been left to grow for almost 125 years, and a lot of them were mature trees already, they're pretty old. And I do find now, it's so interesting, when I go hiking in other places now, I find myself thinking, these trees aren't as big as the trees in Rock Creek Park.
NNAMDIYou know, Scott, a lot of us imagined that the wooded areas of Rock Creek Park are ancient untouched forest. That might not be quite true. The valley that is now Rock Creek was, as you pointed out earlier, settled for a long time.
EINBERGERYep. So -- yeah, so I always argue that in every nature park there is lots of history, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Rock Creek Park. With that said, most of the park, it's fair to say, has generally always been forest. But if you look on 1890 or early maps of the park, there were dozens of small-scale homesteads and farms -- some larger on the east side, next to where the golf course and Carter Barron is now, but primarily small-scale farms. So people were -- people have been living -- up until 1890 when the park was established, people were living there for decades.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd the other thing is, too, that -- that you write about in your book, that a lot of trees were cut down when the circle forts were built in 1861 to defend the city during the Civil War, which they did. And we have the 150th anniversary this summer, celebrating that. But a lot of trees were -- wasn't there -- weren't there like more than 50 acres that were cut down in the Military Road area?
EINBERGERAt least, yes. Basically, all around Fort DeRussy all the trees were hacked down clear down to Rock Creek so soldiers could get a clear line of sight.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments about Rock Creek Park for Scott or Melanie you can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you will see the photos from photographer Susan Austin Roth that are in Melanie's book. You'll see a slideshow of those photos at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Rock Creek Park. We're talking with Scott Einberger. He's an environmental historian and a federal government employee. Scott is author of the book, "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness and Washington, D.C." Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist and the author of the book, "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, D.C."
NNAMDIThat book comes out later this fall. Melanie's also a long-time contributor to the Washington Post. She leads nature walks for the Audubon Naturalist Society. So for people who want to get out and explore and the creek and the park this long holiday weekend, Melanie, Beach Drive is of course closed on weekends. What hikes do you recommend?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYOh, there's so many great hikes in the park.
NNAMDIAnd we have so little time.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI know. I know. You could spend your whole life exploring new trails in the park. I haven't walked on all the trails yet. Well, if you want a real hike there are two fantastic trails running the length of a good part of the park, along Rock Creek. There's the Valley Trail to the east and the Western Ridge Trail to the west. And they're real hiking trails. There's quite a lot of elevation change. You get some beautiful views of the creek from both of the trails. And I think they're about five miles long each.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIf you're really ambitious you could do a 10-mile hike. You could start at Boundary Bridge and hike down the Valley Trail on the eastern side of the creek, and then return on the Western Ridge Trail. If you want to do a shorter trail, there are a lot of fun things you can do. I love the Boundary Bridge area because we have a nice network of loop trails there. A lot of people follow them. When you hike a lot in the park you get to know people because the people who love the park go there as often as they can.
NNAMDIYou see the same people a lot, yes.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYou do. You do. It's wonderful. And people are very friendly, too, I find, which is great. There's a fun hike you can do like right outside the WAMU Studios, which is to go down the Soapstone Valley Trail. And that'll take you down to Rock Creek. And then you kind of turn right and go down around Peirce Mill. You can explore the area around Peirce Mill. And then you can return to Connecticut Avenue on the Melvin Hazen Trail.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd Scott was saying during the break that there's some very old trees along the Melvin Hazen Trail. So that's fun. And then you can have lunch somewhere up on Connecticut Avenue. I like doing things like that. I like starting at Boundary Bridge and ending up over on Grubb Road at the deli over there, which is so fantastic. There's a trail that goes almost right to the deli's front door.
NNAMDIAnd there are a lot of surprises and discoveries in Rock Creek Park, not the least of which is the road system in Rock Creek Park…
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYeah, you really get lost.
NNAMDI…which is what Eric in -- Eric, in Washington, D.C., wants to ask about that. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICHi. I'm glad this new history book came out because they're coming up in researching -- and I started to research it a couple years ago, but I couldn't find it. I found on an old map from before the park was established, there was a road that now no longer exists through the park. And it's near Military Road and it's called Milkhouse Ford Road. And there's like these fords still exist over the creek. And if you look very carefully on Beach Drive, into the hillside and into the woods, you can see this indentation where I think the roadway used to be.
ERICBut now the road has completely disappeared. I was wondering if you'd come across any additional research or any other things like that, that has totally disappeared.
NNAMDIScott has been nodding, yes.
EINBERGERThat's a good question. There are, yeah, there are lots of old wagon roads leading to mills or down to fords that are no longer in use or are no longer there. Some of them have been made into trails actually. The Milkhouse Ford Road is one of the oldest roads, if not the oldest road in the park. On the east side of the park that road, just like today you go from Military Road to Missouri to -- it's another name there, going east.
EINBERGERBut on the east side of Rock Creek Park the road changes from Milkhouse Ford to Rock Creek Ford Road. And there's actually a tiny block right by the corner of Missouri and Georgia that has that same road title. And that's the old roadway.
NNAMDIRock Creek Ford Road, I know -- I live not far away from it.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYCould I recommend -- I'm sorry, Kojo. Could I recommend a map of Rock Creek Park?
NNAMDIYes. Because there are a lot of people who have asked where they can get good trail maps of Rock Creek Park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYes. Okay. Well, I would like to recommend the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, often known as PATC. They have a wonderful map of Rock Creek Park. I know you can purchase it at the Wooden Sanctuary Shop at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. And I believe you can also purchase it at The Nature Center in Rock Creek Park.
EINBERGERYeah, that's right.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd it's a great map of the trails. And it also shows where the roads come in. Because it can get very confusing to sort of figure out where am I, you know, when you come in one of the roads. So this is an excellent map.
NNAMDIAnd -- go ahead, please, Scott.
EINBERGEROh, the -- and getting -- just getting back to your question briefly. The road system and learning about the road system and trail system, how it developed, was actually one of the most fascinating parts of my research in writing with the book. I have some stories on it in the book, but it's, yeah, it's fascinating.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYMay I give a shout out to his book, too? I spent all last week reading it. It is fascinating. For anybody who loves the park, you are going to love reading the history that's in Scott's book.
NNAMDISpeaking, one more, about roads, we got an email from James, in Arlington, Va., who writes, "It has always seemed to me that the one fatal flaw of Rock Creek Park is the Rock Creek Parkway. How early was the Parkway built? Was it just another example of the '50s love affair with car transportation run amok?"
EINBERGERSo surprisingly -- good question. The Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway -- and I could talk about this for an hour. I found it -- I find that story fascinating, too. But the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was the first, the very first federally authorized parkway in U.S. history. It was authorized…
EINBERGER…back in 1911 or '12. I think '11. However, it was not the first completed federal parkway. It took a long time. Appropriations were a roller coaster. Sometimes there and sometimes very much not. And that was actually pretty embarrassing for the people working on the Parkway -- the landscape architects and such. But it was finished by the '30s.
EINBERGERAnd it was -- it -- the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway was originally thought of actually in the 1890s even, but it was formalized -- the plans for it were formalized in what's known as the McMillan Commission. Senator McMillan and some of -- a committee of predominant landscape architects got together and created this plan to connect Rock Creek Park with the "monumental core" or downtown National Mall area of the city. And that was the impetus for the Parkway.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Chris, who writes, "I understand the push to rid parks of invasive plant species, such as English Ivy. However, it is my understanding that milkweed is invasive, yet it is the favorite plant for Monarch butterflies. Should we be selective in what we condemn?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI've never heard milkweed referred to as an invasive plant. It's a native plant. And it is the host for the Monarch butterfly. I -- have you ever heard it referred to…
EINBERGEROh, yeah, it's definitely native. We do not want to remove that.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIt's very desirable. And we've had a dearth of butterflies this summer, which a lot of people have been very concerned about. And I don't know the reasons for it. But I do know that milkweed is the host plant for the Monarch butterfly. And it's very important for that. I also love the plant. It's got a very interesting little flower structure with a corona at the top and these little slits that bees get their legs caught in and that's how it gets pollinated. It's a fascinating flower structure.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd then children love the milkweed pods in the fall when the feathery seeds burst out of the pods and they can blow them. And there's a whole meadow right near the Rock Creek Nature Center filled with milkweed. And the pods that -- the follicles, technically they're called follicles, but most people call them pods -- are ripening now and pretty soon those feathery seeds will be flying.
NNAMDIA couple of more on invasive species. And email from Paul, a licensed tour guide in D.C. "What joy hearing about our own backyard. One of my favorite spots is the Nature Center, but the old inner Boy Scout in me still likes to identify plants and discover tiny orchids right here. And we can become permanent tourists here by joining the folks trying to stop the invasive species cropping up all around us. I hope you talk about a solution that does not rely on toxic herbicides."
NNAMDIAnd then here is Curi, in Rockville, Md. Curi, your turn.
CURIHi, thanks for taking my call, Kojo. And Mel and Scott, congratulations on your books. I can't wait to read them both.
CURII'm an invasive plant ecologist. That's what I do for a living. And so the comments that folks are making about invasives, you asked about half an hour ago, Kojo, what people could actually do…
CURI…about them. One of the very most important things that people can do is to learn what they are. Because of the way the continents were originally connected and because of climatic similarities between -- and trade between the Eastern United States and Far East Asia, we have -- we get a lot of our invasive species through ornamental horticulture -- no fault to the industry -- because they live here. Because it's very similar to the climate that they came from and habitats that they came from.
CURIAnd we import them and we plant them in our gardens and they escaped. It's best if people learn which plants are invasive -- especially with a park that is as long and skinny and porous as Rock Creek. So many plants can go -- gravitate pretty easily out of gardens, down hills, into the flood plains.
CURIAnother way that people can help is by joining the National Park Services volunteer efforts. Volunteers majorly support the work of the exotic plant management teams at each region that the Park Service has. Don't plant them, don't buy them, take them out of your own gardens, help the public lands.
NNAMDICuri, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIGood suggestions all.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYes. And I'd like to say, too, that getting involved in invasives removal is one of the best things you can do. Two of the best things you can do are to plant native plants, to plant a lot of native trees and other native plants. To not, as Curi said, do not plant plants that have the potential to become invasive, that are not native. And we haven't talked about the Rock Creek Conservancy, which is a wonderful organization dedicated to protecting improving Rock Creek Park.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd I was on their website this morning and I noticed that they actually have an invasives removal day this Saturday, August 30th, in the Melvin Hazen section of the park. You can go to their website and see where to go at 9:00 o'clock and what to bring. And you can just show up and get involved in that invasives removal. It's also a really good idea to get trained as Weed Warrior. And there are a number of ways to do that.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIn addition to the programs in D.C., Montgomery County has an excellent Weed Warrior program that was founded by Carol Bergmann, who is the botanist and ecologist for Montgomery County Parks. She's actually the person who coined the term Weed Warrior and she has trained hundreds, if not thousands of Weed Warriors. And she has a wonderful program in Montgomery County.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYCasey Trees, which is also a wonderful organization we haven't mentioned. And, you know, getting involved in all of their tree-planting activities and other activities is great. And I think they also have some invasives removal programs. Do you have anything else you wanted to add to that?
NNAMDII'd like to ask Scott about the main threats Rock Creek has from pollution.
EINBERGERI was going to say -- so -- but real quickly here -- so, yeah, Rock Creek Conservancy's website, RockCreekConservancy.org, is a great place to learn about some of the environmental problems facing the park and what you can do about it.
NNAMDIAnd you'll find a link to that at our website, kojoshow.org.
EINBERGERAnd if you live down in the Georgetown or Adams Morgan area, there's a small unit of Rock Creek Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park.
EINBERGERAnd Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy is doing a lot of good things down there, as well. They're D-O Park -- DOPark.org, as well.
NNAMDIOne thing we haven't talked about, what wildlife do you see in the park?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYOh, I saw a raccoon last night. I was hiking on the Valley Trail. I had come up the Theodore Roosevelt Trail to Pulpit Rock, which it was a favorite place of Theodore Roosevelt. He loved to hike there and go on -- do rock scrambles. Anyway, and I -- so I -- then I walked south on the Valley Trail and I saw what looked like a squirrel. And then I realized that's a very large squirrel. And it was a raccoon climbing down the tree. If you spend a lot of time in Rock Creek Park you're going to see a lot of wildlife.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWe have red foxes. We even have gray foxes. I understand there's one or more beavers that have been hanging out around Peirce Mill this summer. There are muskrats. All kinds of animals. And also the amphibians are a huge part of Rock Creek Park. Very early in the spring you will hear the kind of quacking sounds of the wood frogs that come to the vernal pools to mate. We hear them up around the Boundary Bridge area in the vernal pools there.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd then the spring peepers. There's no sweeter sound than those little tree frogs called spring peepers, when they start to sing in the very early spring. And they're in lots of parts of the park. Spotted salamanders come down to mate in the -- breed in the vernal pools. There's just a wealth of wildlife. And we haven't said anything about the birds, but it's very common to see great blue herons, belted kingfishers, wood ducks raising their families. All kinds of woodpeckers.
NNAMDIOh, that means we're running out of time, but please keep in mind that volunteers are crucial to the sustainability…
NNAMDI…of Rock Creek Park. Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist and the author of "A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, D.C." Scott Einberger is an environmental historian and a federal government employee. His book is called, "A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness and Washington, D.C." Thank you both for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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