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Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial

Washington, DC (2007 & 2009)

Also be sure to see the Travel/Geography Blog

A Short Video of the Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington, DC

Few things are finer than a walk on Theodore Roosevelt island on a nice day.

Theodore Roosevelt Statue

Theodore Roosevelt,
the Island's Namesake

We visited Theodore Roosevelt Island, often referred to by its shorter name "Roosevelt Island" an 88 acre nature preserve set amid the Potomac River and the surrounding urban landscape. The National Park Service maintained Roosevelt Island in a natural state with a green canopy of dense hardwood forest accented by lowland filtered by tidal marshes. A memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States rose within a clearing on the northern end, delivering an emotional stump speech with raised arm as translated by carved tablets along the perimeter. To name such a restful oasis, hemmed in as it was between the highrises of Rosslyn and the crowded quarters of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, was a fitting tribute to President Roosevelt. He, the consummate outdoorsman and conservationist of his generation, would have appreciated the gesture.

Roosevelt Fountain

The Memorial Plaza

The Theodore Roosevelt Association purchased this island and nearby Little Island in 1932. They donated it to the American people as a thoughtful gift and as a tribute to the lasting memory of the man they pledged to honor. Under Association guidance, Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. drafted a restorative plan carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a public works project during the height of the Great Depression. In the 1960's, Eric Gugler designed the Memorial Plaza adorning the island's highest point and Paul Manship sculpted the Theodore Roosevelt statue as its central focus. Neither object was visible from outside the park. They appeared suddenly from behind the forest curtain, a light-filled pocket within the darker woods.

The Potomac River formed Roosevelt Island naturally ages ago as softer stone eroded in river currents and floods, and the harder stone remained. People gravitated to the island as they arrived. Native Americans built seasonal fishing villages. English colonists called it My Lord's Island and Barbadoes. George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the namesake for a large University in Northern Virginia, once counted this as part of his vast estate. His son John constructed a mansion on this river-trapped outcropping and it became known as Mason's Island. Other names adorned it over time: I own an 1894 atlas that lists it as Analostan Island. While once it was a fishing village and later a plantation, it then served as a drill field for Union troops during the Civil War and a picnic ground for local Washingtonians. Finally it became a verdant oasis in an otherwise concrete-gray metropolis.

Much more information can be found in the Theodore Roosevelt Island brochure that visitors can pick up at the sign post upon arriving on the island.

Pedestrian Bridge

Pedestrian Walkway to the Island

The National Park Services' George Washington Memorial Parkway unit administered Roosevelt Island. Conveniently the GW Parkway ran along the western flank of the river directly across the way. The typical tourist remained unaware of this hidden gem, forgotten among the grandeur of nearby monuments and museums within the tourmobile circuit. Locals gathered to stroll, jog or relax, understanding intuitively a secret passed down through generations: the island may be overlooked but it's easy to reach.

By car, Roosevelt Island could only be accessed from the northbound lanes of the GW Parkway. The park included a small parking lot continuously filled with cars and motorcycles on pleasant days. Savvy visitors didn't despair. Many bypassed this carpark reflexively, understanding that more reliable options could avoid a hassle.

Drivers could stash their cars in nearby Rosslyn with its abundant street parking and garages. Even more conveniently the Metro (Washington's subway system) included a Blue and Orange line stop in Rosslyn. Pedestrians from nearby Georgetown could easily cross Key Bride while enjoying some of the best river views of the city along their stroll towards the Virginia border. A confluence of three different hiking or biking trails joined at the riverbank near the island, an eco-friendly carbon-free superhighway convergence:

From Rosslyn visitors walked towards Georgetown, turning right before reaching Key Bridge, and followed a well-marked path a quarter of a mile to the island. They knew to stay towards the right side of the trail to avoid swiftly-moving bicycles coming from behind. Visitors walking from Georgetown did basically the same thing but turned left after crossing Key Bridge. A dedicated skywalk delivered walkers safely over the busy GW Parkway as the trail continued towards the Roosevelt Island parking lot. From here, visitors crossed a narrow river channel on the island's footbridge. Bicycles were not allowed on the island and had to be left at a bike rack next to the entrance.


River View of Key Bridge
and Georgetown

An inspirational view appeared from the footbridge suspended above the calm Potomac. Familiar arches carried Key Bridge across the water-filled gap between the the two shores. Above it grew Georgetown like a masonry vineyard upon a rocky trellis, as the coastal plain gave way to piedmont. Healy Hall's towering spire and Lauinger Library's distinctive keyhole marked Georgetown University. We now stood in Washington, DC just a few feet from Virginia shoreline. The District's territory included the entirety of the Potomac River along its common border with Virginia, an artifact of an agreement made when this was once part of Maryland. Even though we approached Roosevelt Island from the Commonwealth, the island itself was entirely within the District.

If you would like to know more interesting facts about the Virginia / District of Columbia border, please see my Strange Geography - District of Columbia page.

Island Trail

Shaded Path
through the Woodlands

Secluded woodland paths crossed Roosevelt Island in north-south fingers. Bedrock rose several yards above the riverbank on the northwestern corner of island. When John Mason lived here, when people still called it Mason's Island, he placed his home in this safe, dry quarter. Cultivated fields and gardens sloped downhill towards the muck. Dry land continued down the spine. Modern landscapers blazed two secluded tracks along this central ridge. The Upland Trail extended from the far northern shore and stretched down the backbone nearly the length of the island. The Woods Trail extended south from the Memorial Plaza, running in parallel, to be joined eventually by the Upland Trail at the park's only restroom facility. The commingled trail extended a little further south to the marshland entrance of the forebodingly named Swamp Trail. Trees grew so thickly that it was difficult to believe a city stood a half-mile away. Only airliners landing at nearby National Airport broke the spell.


The Island's Tidal Marsh

A short footbridge forded a shallow creek at the southern end of the island, signifying a boundary between the Wood Trail and the Swamp Trail. Water flowing from the island did not form this creek. The rhythms of the moon forced Potomac waters up and back through this tidal marsh. This photograph was taken at low tide and higher water marks can be seen as a muddy banks below the vegetation in the foreground.

Skink - Lizard

Southeastern Five-lined Skink
An Island Resident

While the tides filled and flushed marshland deep into the island's eastern interior, it was far enough inland to be freshwater. A lone tree somehow found enough high ground to grow amid the unstable surface, towering over cattails and grasses. Incredibly, footings for the Theodore Roosevelt bridge rested upon the island's southern terminus, a hundred feet in the opposite direction from this spot, carrying Interstate 66 between Virginia and the District of Columbia and dumping it onto Constitution Avenue adjacent to the National Mall.

Swamp Causeway

Boardwalk Trail Over the Swamp

Into the marsh we marched, following the Swamp Trail along the island's eastern flank. The trail was actually a pleasant, level-grade boardwalk built above the muck and mud. The trail included several alcoves built onto the boardwalk that allowed people to rest on benches or simply enjoy the natural scenery in solitude. A spur cut due west from the main trail about the midway point, pushing a hundred yards towards a pier in the murkiest depths. This led to the only part of Roosevelt Island naturally denied a thick layer of dense hardwood forest. We spotted a red wing blackbird perched high upon a dead branch chirping joyously in the open sky. Around the corner a Southeastern Five-lined Skink sunbathed on the boardwalk, only to scurry away as we approached.