Theodore Roosevelt Island: A Hidden Washington D.C. Gem

Set near the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital, across the channel from Georgetown and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is 88.5 acres of pure nature. A favorite of area resident Alex Perdikis, Theodore Roosevelt Island is a tribute to the avid conservationist and 26th president of the United States. The only way to reach the island is across the footbridge from Arlington, Virginia. Cars and bicycles are prohibited. Miles of hiking trails take visitors through swampy bottomlands and wooded uplands away from the noise of the city.

From Native Americans to Dynamite

The Nacotchtank Indians made a temporary home of the island in 1668. They called it Anacostine. After the Nacotchtank left, the island was acquired and inhabited by several families, including the Masons. John Mason built a mansion and the family planted gardens. The Masons were forced to leave when the only water became stagnate. It has been uninhabited since then, except for a short time during the Civil War when Union troops were stationed on it. Fire destroyed the mansion, and its foundation is all that remains today.

In 1898, without the knowledge of or permission from local authorities, Columbian University, now known as George Washington University, chemist, Charles Edward Munroe, tested explosives on the island. District of Columbia police were notified by frightened citizens when the dynamite and other explosives were discovered. Washington Gas Light Company purchased the island in 1913 and allowed the vegetation to take over. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cleared the island in 1935. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association bought the island from Washington Gas in 1931 and set to work on creating the monument.

From 1960 On

Funds to build a memorial were slow in coming. The memorial was not funded, in fact, until 1960. The memorial was dedicated in 1967 and includes a 17-foot statue of Roosevelt, four stone monoliths and two fountains. Theodore Roosevelt Island has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.

The Potomac River surrounds the island and the vegetation and geological features are diverse. Spring wildflowers are abundant and a wide variety of birds call the island home at various times throughout the year.

The Fountains No Longer Flow

Sadly, Alex Perdikis’s last visit to the island was a disappointing one. The fountains no longer flow. The canal water is stagnant. The Roosevelt quotes on the monoliths are unreadable. Years of neglect have taken a toll. The National Park Service (NPS) is responsible for maintaining the park but because the island is only accessible by foot, it is not easy to maintain. Another problem is that the island is less well-known and not visited as much as other monuments in the area. In other words, it’s easy to forget.

According to an August 2015 statement from the NPS, there is a plan in place to address the issues at Theodore Roosevelt Island. Work on the moats is set to begin shortly and long-term goals include addressing the island’s condition and access.