- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

When Bill Baxter was a teenager in the 1960s, hanging around his dad's boathouse on the Georgetown wharf, Theodore Roosevelt Island was a place to escape the city, maybe shoot guns and throw the occasional beer party. In 1962, young Bill rowed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her toddlers to the island, outrowing the Secret Service, he says. The Kennedys enjoyed a picnic in a near-wilderness, freed from reporters, staff and gawkers.

"The island was wild back in those days," Mr. Baxter says.

Today the 90-acre patch of forest and swamp, just below the office towers of Rosslyn, may not be the best bet for a first-family hideout; it's easy for everyone to reach.

Yet despite the jets roaring overhead and the presence of the stark memorial to the 26th president, standing triumphantly in 17 feet of bronze in a round concrete plaza the island's lush vegetation, abundant bird life and isolation still offers a near-wilderness feeling, deepened by its proximity to population centers.

"It's just impressive that you can experience these sort of natural qualities, especially this close to an urban area," says Matt Berres, director of community action for the Potomac Conservancy. "It's literally an island among concrete."

It's also a presidential memorial. But unlike the more visible monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt the statue and plaza on Roosevelt Island are not visible from any road and there are no hot dog stands or T-shirt vendors. It's a memorial to a president but also an acknowledgement of Theodore Roosevelt's appreciation of the nation's natural wonders and love of the outdoors.

The paths are unpaved and bicycles are not allowed. Even a smooth boardwalk, which allows easy access over the sometimes soggy swamp, is made of recycled plastic. Although paths snake around the island, it is easy for one to miss the memorial to Roosevelt, even though it is only about 60 yards from the island entrance.

The contrast between the manmade memorial and the primeval land is striking.

"The design really is to minimize what you see of other humans," says Dan Seeley, chief ranger for the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

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It takes just a few minutes of walking from the trailhead off the George Washington Memorial Parkway to reach the island and its dense Virginia-jungle forest, sweaty swamp and little riverfront clearings. In most places, the trees are so high and thick that were it not for the air traffic in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, one could imagine what it was like centuries ago, when the Potomac was a quiet place and the marshes penetrated the land.

Bird-watchers find plenty to see here, and great blue herons flying away with fish in their beaks are common sights. Come here when few others are around or in poor weather, and the city doesn't seem so near.

The island follows its own rhythms. Wildflowers come and go, and the tides make the channel between the island and the Virginia mainland, called the Little River, full and clear one visit, and low and brackish another.

A stroll to the dank reaches of the swamp reveals the loud, varied sounds of birds, cicadas, frogs and more. It seems to get louder and louder the longer one stays there in silence.

Yet it's just minutes by bicycle, Metro or car from where many people live. Moreover, its northern tip is but a 15-minute paddle from the boathouses on the D.C. side of the river that offer canoe, rowboat and kayak rentals Jack's Boathouse, the Thompson Boat Center and Fletcher's.

Boating past the bridge's concrete supports gives one a feeling of seeing some of Washington's backstage. The wild vegetation on the shores doesn't look at all as if major highways are just yards away, and on even the hottest days, the vegetation and the water seem to have a cooling effect. A boat's slow pace provides views of local hidden relics, such as the ruins of a stone foundation, just north of the bridge near the Virginia shore, that is all that remains of an aqueduct that crossed the Potomac from the 1840s until well into the 20th century.

Without too grueling a workout, one can paddle or row around the entire island in about an hour. On the east (main channel) side, one can get a near-wilderness view of the island in one direction, great blue herons and all. Look the other way and see Washington's familiar landmarks: the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, the Watergate.

Come up by way of the Little River between the island and the Virginia mainland, and the current is slower and the shores are almost close enough to greet people on them. The Park Service tolerates boaters but asks that those who land on the island avoid trampling the brush and instead drop in on bare patches, such as under the footbridge or on one of a few beaches on the island's northern end.

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In the early 1700s, the island was untouched but by a few Colonial and American-Indian fishing parties. Virginia's famed Mason family took ownership in 1717, and ferry service began in 1748. In the 1790s, John Mason built a house and, probably with slave labor, planted some fields. With the island accessible from Georgetown by ferry, Mason would have enjoyed a direct view of the Capitol as it was built and of the city as it grew. At the time, the area that is now the National Mall was a swampy area. Also around then, a causeway was built between the island and the Virginia mainland.

The Mason house burned down in 1833. Its ruins, and those of other buildings remain barely as unmarked linear mounds covered in ivy.

Various owners and visitors used the island for different purposes after the Mason era. Around the time of the Civil War, the island became an employment clearinghouse of sorts for the increasing numbers of black men arriving in the area. In 1863, it became a camp for the 1st U.S. Colored Troops, a black infantry regiment under the command of white officers. As many as 20 buildings may have existed at that time. At one point during the Civil War, and again during World War II, pontoon bridges connected the island with Georgetown.

After the Civil War, the island saw still more owners and users. Jousting tournaments took place in a clearing, probably where the memorial is, apparently with many of the trappings favored by modern-day retro-medievalists. The Columbian Athletic Club of which Roosevelt was a member set up a track for bicycle and foot races, and someone set the world record for the 100-yard dash there in the 1890s. Around the turn of the 20th century, a boat club erected a boathouse, which soon burned down.

In 1913, the Washington Gas Light Company purchased the island as a site for a future gas plant. In 1931, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association bought the island after earlier attempts to memorialize the president, who died in 1919, were rebuffed as coming too soon after his death. The association gave the land to the federal government the next year to be administered by the National Park Service.

The federal government used the island for training again during World War II. Bill Baxter's father, Jack Baxter, a Georgetown police officer, opened Jack's Boathouse almost directly under the Key Bridge on Water Street. The boathouse remains a family business a half century later.

The city grew, and the time came to build the bridge linking Interstate 66 to Constitution Avenue that was named for Theodore Roosevelt. The association had veto power over uses of the island, but a compromise was reached to allow the bridge to cross the island. The bridge was completed in 1964 and nearly cuts off the island's southern tip. The wild feel, as well as much of the view south to downtown Washington and the other memorials, is interrupted by the giant concrete buttresses and the sounds of traffic.

"The association and the park service were not happy about it, but it was a necessity for the region, and the island was the best place to put it," Mr. Seeley says. "And it's too bad, but that's the way it is."

The island remained difficult to reach accessible by boat or causeway only until the completion of the parking lot off the George Washington Memorial Parkway and footbridge to the island in 1979. Another footbridge over the parkway makes the island accessible from Rosslyn, allowing lunchtime access to a piece of Roosevelt's vision, and some peace and quiet.

"It's amazing how many people say it has that effect on them and that they had no idea there was this kind of a place in Washington," Mr. Seeley says.

•••

Theodore Roosevelt's admirers think of him as the conservation president, the adventurer, ahead of his time, who recognized the intangible value of experiencing nature. Roosevelt hunted and ranched in the West and as president helped create agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Reclamation Service. His actions limited development by designating hundreds of millions of acres of public land as national forests, wildlife preserves and national parks.

During his decades in Washington, Roosevelt apparently enjoyed getting away from the workaday world. He probably visited the island several times because he belonged to local athletic clubs and spent his leisure time with the elite.

"He used it in the same way people do today, to get away from things," says John Gable, executive director of the association.

After decades of debate over the memorial, the association, Roosevelt's family and the Park Service agreed on the current incarnation of the island, designed to cater to the appeal of wilderness. In its midst is the memorial plaza designed by architect Eric Gugler, who also redesigned the West Wing of the White House during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The plaza is a mandala-shaped sprawl of benches, curved pools, shrubbery, and brick and concrete walkways a hard, man-made island in concrete within the green island. President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated the memorial in 1967.

Paul Manship, best known for the Prometheus fountain in New York's Rockefeller Plaza and other gracefully curved, flowing mythological pieces, designed the giant, rigid-looking Roosevelt. With one arm raised as if in mid-debate, the behemoth would look in place at least as well in a Soviet bloc city as here. Scraps of Roosevelt's words on various subjects manhood, nature and so on adorn large, flat rectangular marble blocks that flank the statue. The unaware reaching the plaza for the first time on a foggy morning might for a moment think they had come across Stonehenge.

In the 1980s, the island's advocates fought a plan to put caged bald eagles on display on the island, Mr. Gable says. Now, wild bald eagles occasionally visit.

"If you open yourself up, you can really experience some wonderful nature," Mr. Seeley says. "You can really experience the revelation of nature that was so important to Theodore Roosevelt."

•••

It's difficult to keep the wilderness in the middle of the city. Trash finds its way into little bays and inlets, up backwaters and in the bushes. The tangled mass of floating plants screen the trash out of the water especially well, concentrating the pop bottles for cleanup. On one recent outing on the Potomac, more than 20 boats and 100-plus volunteers hauled 10,000 pounds of trash including a handgun and working cell phones from the river and surrounding parklands in one day, Mr. Berres says.

A big problem for land managers that's less apparent is invasive plants. English ivy and Japanese stilt grass may look just fine the stilt grass is a pleasant green ground cover, and the ivy crawls mercilessly up giant trees but in fact they are not native and not wanted because they muscle out native species. The ivy, for example, kills the trees it climbs, leaving trees in varying stages of decay on the island.

To tip the balance, many groups have volunteered to pull the weeds. Mr. Berres says the groups have aggressively targeted the worst offenders, putting together pull-and-bag "SWAT teams" (including the so-called Ivy League.) Victories come on some fronts, but the battle against invasive plants, Mr. Berres says, is a ceaseless one.

School groups visit, and the island becomes an environmental-education lab. Bird-watchers come and are surprised to find such a haven so close to the city. Fishing is allowed. The park service closes the gates to the walkway from dusk to dawn.

For the people closest to the island, preservation is going about as well as could be hoped in an urban area, in a place that would be worth millions if developed.

"You got to give the Park Service credit," Mr. Baxter says. "If they didn't control it, it would be a huge marina or something."

He says it's in keeping with the words of his father, whose ashes were scattered in the river in 1999.

"Jack said, 'We'll keep it a country place in the middle of the city,'" Mr. Baxter says.

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