"There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm." – Theodore Roosevelt
Just east of Key Bridge in the Potomac River lies a small island with a varied history. Once home to Anolostan Indians, it passed through several well-known colonial families’ hands, including George Mason’s son’s. Later it hosted a unit of black Union troops during the Civil War. In the late 1800’s, the Strathmore family built a mansion on the island, but a dramatic turn of events forced their departure. The story goes that the daughter of the family planned to elope with an Englishman who sent Indian messengers to the house to tell her that he was coming. Her enraged father killed the messengers, and in turn an Indian chief set the mansion ablaze in revenge.
Little of note happened after that, the island reverting to woodland, until the Theodore Roosevelt Association purchased it in 1931 and donated to the National Park Service with the understanding that a TR memorial would be built there. Initially there were plans to build a 200-car parking lot on the island, allowing vehicular access, but Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s outspoken daughter, was incensed. She declared, "That lovely, wild island should be left just as it is."
As was usually the case, Alice got her way. Today the island stands a wild oasis just across from the gleaming buildings of downtown Rosslyn.
Countless times driving into Washington from Maryland along the G.W. Parkway, I’d passed by the island and wondered about it. However, there is only access coming from the opposite direction, away from Washington. Resolved to visit the island, one fine spring day we turned around at Memorial Bridge and came back up the parkway.
On weekends the smallish parking lot across from the island is usually full, but on a weekday morning there were only a handful of cars. We walked across the long footbridge spanning the Potomac to the island, then stopped at the bulletin board the Park Service has set up. The maps there show several trails, the longest going some 2-1/2 miles around the island’s shoreline. We chose to head straight toward the memorial set in the center of the island.
It’s a lovely place. A 17-foot statue of Roosevelt in a characteristic pose – hand raised in exhortation, the famous teeth bared – stands before an immense slab of granite. The memorial, flanked by woods, features moats on either side of a large circular plaza, with low granite bridges arching out across the waters. Large standing tablets bear T.R. quotations. Birdsong vies with the sound of distant traffic and airplanes heading into National Airport.
A large snapping turtle swam lazily in the moat on the day we came. Visitors have reported seeing foxes on the island, and the fishing is good from the island’s shores. In May, the majestic purple-flowered paulownia trees are in bloom.
I think T.R. would have liked it.