by Simone Monteleone
Cultural Resources Program Manager, Rock Creek Park
Washington, D.C. is home to one of the largest and oldest urban parks in the United States. Created by Congress in 1890, Rock Creek Park (US Reservation 339) encompasses 1,777 acres of forest, designed landscapes, the last remaining mill within the District of Columbia, park roads, trails, a Civil War-era fort, and Rock Creek itself.
Visitors sometimes mistake the large swaths of forest in the northern portions of the park as “virgin” woodlands, but the trail system within the park is evidence of a more intricate history of this land and its relationship with people throughout time.
The trail system of Rock Creek Park provides a story for each period of the land’s development, from Native American occupation through the modern era. Archeological investigations by the National Park Service and others within the Rock Creek valley have found evidence of quarrying activities within the park around 2000 BC. Although physical evidence of Indian trails within Rock Creek Park has not been uncovered, historic maps identified early trails within the area of Piney Branch Parkway and fords that would have provided access across the creek.
As land was acquired in the Rock Creek valley by early settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, more formal access ways into this area were eventually developed to service the farmsteads, mills, and estates that lined the creek.
One of the more historic trails within Rock Creek Park is Foot Trail #11, otherwise known as the Clagett Farm Trail. Located near Picnic Groves 8 and 9, portions of this trail were first identified on an 1892 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCGS) map, but research suggests it dates back to the early 1800s as an old tenant farm road.
Another foot trail within Rock Creek Park that is associated with an old road is a short trail adjacent to Klingle Mansion/Linnaean Hill. The mansion, located at 3545 Williamsburg Lane, NW, was originally constructed in 1823 by Joshua Peirce. The trails here are old roads and driveways that led to the mansion and connected the site with Peirce Mill.
The Pine Trail, a short foot trail that begins at 16th Street just south of Holly Street, was originally an old farm road that led from D. Clagett’s heir’s farmstead northeast of the park to Rock Creek. Another Clagett farmstead was also located on the west side of the creek just south of the trail. First identified on a ca. 1850 DC Suburb Map, this farm road could have possibly been utilized by soldiers during the Battle of Fort Stevens in 1864.
One of the most important features of the Rock Creek Park trail system are the bridle trails throughout the park. Equestrian access within the park was a significant focus during the park’s early history, and the system’s preservation into the present day provides riders with the opportunity to enjoy an urban experience in a unique way.
The two main bridle trails within Rock Creek Park – the Black Horse and White Horse Trails – were formally established in the late 1950s. These trails are actually are old farm roads or trails that were built during the park’s early development period of 1897-1916. One section of the White Horse Trail is also known as the Fort DeRussy Trail. This one-half mile segment was built from part of the Civil War-era access road the military constructed to reach Fort DeRussy. Fort DeRussy is one of the best preserved forts from the Civil War Defenses of Washington and is clearly discernible within its protective, forested cover.
The National Park Service has undertaken a multi-year study of the historic trails throughout Rock Creek Park and some of the tributary parks. This study, written by historical landscape architect Deana Poss and landscape historian Frances McMillen, will be published and released to the public in the fall/winter of 2013.