The Hidden Memorial: Theodore Roosevelt Island

Do you like roads less traveled or hidden in plain sight locations? If so, you should definitely check out the Theodore Roosevelt Island. Located in the middle of the Potomac River between Georgetown and and Arlington, this island often goes unnoticed when you drive over it. Part of this is because there are no buildings on the island, so it is mainly trails and the Roosevelt Memorial Plaza.


View of the wetlands on the Swamp Trail

The island itself is composed of forest and wetlands. Yes, there is an actual swamp within the DC city limits, but don’t tell anyone that. The centerpiece of the island is the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Plaza, but the entire 88.5-acre island is also a part of the presidential memorial, which makes it the largest presidential memorial within the District’s limits. While I knew that the island was named Roosevelt Island, I had no idea that Teddy Roosevelt had a presidential memorial. The memorial plaza itself is definitely an area that seems to have been designed for reflection. The entire plaza is encircled by trees, so it feels a little like a stone meadow in the middle of the forest. Even the entrance to the area is partially blocked by trees. There are plenty of benches and fountains that must be beautiful when they are turned on. And just like the great memorials on the National Mall, there is a huge bronze statue and an assortment of stone slabs that have some of his most famous quotes. I particularly like one of the quotes on the nature slab, which says “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” I think this is a good quote to remember both in regards to nature and to urban environments.  

The rest of the island seems undeveloped to highlight Teddy’s efforts as a conservationist and  as the signer of the 1906 Antiquities Act; however, the island has not always been the heavily forested area it is now. In 1932, when the island was bought from the Washington Gas Light Company, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. and the Civilian Conservation Corps were tasked with the job of returning the island to what it may have looked like before humans stepped foot on it. The result is a forest and wetlands with about 3 miles of walking paths. 

There is something interesting when cities decide to make islands into parks. I have been to several island parks and have loved each one, but it does take planning or at least some forethought to go to one. It is not quite the same as finding a green space close to home or work and sitting down for a few minutes to appreciate nature. These parks are made for planned excursions and they serve a purpose. They often bring wilderness into the city. The island feels like a silent escape from the city. Surrounded by water, it is separate from the rest of the city and there is a hard edge between it and city life. While big parks like New York’s Central Park or Rock Creek Park have a slight grey area between when the city ends and the park begins, island parks can be dense with vegetation immediately because their borders are water and not man made structures and buildings. In fact they are inviting because of their dense vegetation. 

One of my favorite parts of the Roosevelt Island is actually the entrance with the long footbridge across the river. As you cross from Arlington onto the bridge, the island looms in front of you and grows bigger and more inviting the closer you get. Now this is just the natural process of what happens when you walk closer to anything, but the effect on Roosevelt Island is almost magical. Partly because it is an island, partly because of the forest, partly because the path splits to either side at the end of the bridge, all these aspects help solidify the feeling of leaving the city and entering nature. The irony lies in the fact that the act of crossing the bridge results in entering Washington, DC rather than leaving it.

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