Exploring 50 years of the Mount Vernon Trail

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Exploring 50 years of the Mount Vernon Trail
The Mount Vernon Trail attracts about one million users annually, making it one of the region’s most popular recreational trails. (Photo/Margaret Stevens)
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By Kim Davis | [email protected]

Last weekend our country marked Memorial Day to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Unofficially, it also heralded the beginning of the summer season.

Warmer temperatures inspire joggers, bicyclists, families gathering for picnics and dog walkers to venture to a treasured path along Virginia’s Potomac River shorelines known as the Mount Vernon Trail. The 18-mile trail winds between the river and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, stretching northeast from Arlington south to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

Seasoned residents of Alexandria often go about our daily lives taking for granted the rich history and natural beauty that surrounds us, particularly along this tiny strip of land. We drive to and from work and run errands on the Parkway, while taking business calls or conferring with spouses about daily routines. We are only vaguely aware that someone had the foresight to preserve and protect the scenic grandeur and history of this area for future generations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mount Vernon Trail, a paltry number by our area’s historic standards, but one that merits celebration, not to mention learning a bit of its fascinating history. More than a century in the making, this well-worn path might not have been safeguarded for our use but for the efforts of many Alexandrians.

According to the National Park Service, which maintains the G.W. Parkway, Alexandria city officials began advocating for a “national road” to Mount Vernon in the late 1800s to boost local commerce. At that time, D.C.-area residents traveled by steamboat to see George Washington’s renowned Mount Vernon family estate to learn more about American history and democratic values. In 1887, a group of Alexandrians formed the Mount Vernon Avenue Association to promote the idea of a proposed Memorial Highway from the national capital to Mount Vernon.

Despite broad consensus for the project, a confluence of events caused delays and roadblocks along the way. Construction of the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Railways – an inexpensive commuter streetcar system – hampered initial efforts. A few years later, a group of prominent Alexandrian businessmen proposed construction of a bridge to connect Alexandria and Washington, D.C., reviving interest in creating a road to Mount Vernon. Initial suggestions for the roadway included a grandiose, monumental avenue lined with Beau Arts memorials, tombs and roadside attractions which failed to gain support.

In 1902, a comprehensive plan for the development of a monumental park system for the greater Washington area, known as the McMillan Plan, spearheaded by U.S. Senator James McMillan, included a series of parkways, designed to allow travelers in carriages, the predominant form of transportation at the time, to discover history while enjoying nature’s beauty. The plan envisioned a road along the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

The Commission’s vision focused on preserving the natural beauty surrounding the Potomac River to provide an oasis in the nation’s capital to protect eagles’ nests, fish, wildlife and areas of recreation. At the time, groups testified that existing roads to Mount Vernon were littered with unsightly billboards, tourist traps, gas stations and fast-food dives. Following a series of critical maneuvers to fund the highway bill through Congress, the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway was authorized in 1928.

Barbara Lynch, who along with the late Ellen Pickering, another Alexandria environmental activist, led the effort to build the bike path along the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Lynch is pictured at an April event celebrating the trail’s 50 years. (Photo/Serdar Joraye)

The eventual plan favored a protected area along the Potomac River’s edge. The author of this idea is not clear, but famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a key player in the McMillan Plan, is credited with this suggestion.

The authorization by Congress to envelop this area was but a starting point. It would take another 43 years for the trail we know today to be executed. A few short dirt paths were in place before 1970 in busier areas, but none were suitable for the long bike rides for which many in the area yearned. The National Park Service had been seeking money for a trail to Gravelly Point as far back as 1967, but it was not until 1971 when local civic groups led by two Alexandria women – Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch – fiercely lobbied in favor of a full trail along the parkway that the Park Service began to understand the scope of the problem.

With no trail in place, bikers were forced to ride on the heavily trafficked George Washington Memorial Parkway, a dangerous option at best. A rally to address the problem was held On May 15, 1971, on a cordoned-off section of Rock Creek Parkway in Washington. Speakers called for better and safer access for bicyclists. Pickering and Lynch used this occasion to build a case for the Mount Vernon Trail. The pair began gathering signatures for a petition to build a bike trail, gathering more than 700 signatures. The petition was sent to an assistant director at the National Park Service, Jack Fish, who agreed to meet with them.

Unfortunately, he told them there was no money for a trail and no precedent for one on park land. He did agree, however, to provide the right-of-way and gravel if Pickering and Lynch could provide volunteers to build a path.

“We made the petition so large the Park Service had trouble finding room to file it in their office,” Lynch said. Lynch, who is “over 90” and still resides in Old Town, was in her mid-40s at the time with four young children ages four, six, eight and 10, who can bear witness to their mother’s work to establish a trail. Several recently attended a 50th anniversary celebration of the trail. Lynch’s children, she said, marveled when they first saw people on the trail saying, “Look, mom, people are using our trail.”

According to the Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to improving the trail, “Pickering and Lynch organized 40 volunteers, the Park Service provided some shovels, and every Saturday that winter they spread gravel.” Volunteers included families, children, Boy Scouts and students; passing drivers even sometimes stopped to help.

After months of work in the bitter cold with 400 recruits, 4,200 tons of gravel, 5,300 hours of labor, and $27,000, 4.5 miles of a new six-foot-wide gravel bike trail connected Belle Haven Park to Memorial Bridge. On April 15, 1972, the Mount Vernon Trail was born.

“It was a mammoth and unprecedented undertaking by two dedicated individuals who would not take no for an answer and would stop at nothing to make the trail a reality,” FOMVT Executive Director Judd Isbell said. “In the words of Pickering at the time, ‘We were just women who said, “Why don’t we?” And we did.’”

Lynch recently said, “The time was right. People were starting to exercise outdoors, dirt paths were there waiting to be completed and G.W. Parkway Service Superintendent Dave Ritchie closed the paths on weekends so volunteers could build the trail with no red tape.”

Lynch said she and Pickering were also good friends whose children played together.

“I admired Ellen,” Lynch said. “She had great integrity, was very bright and was an early environmentalist. We were also fortunate to have the support of Mayor [Charles] Beatley and a great City Council.”

Pickering went on to join the Alexandria City Council and “battled developers eager to festoon Alexandria’s historic waterfront with offices and apartment buildings,” according to her 2008 Washington Post obituary.

Pickering opposed a plan to convert the former torpedo factory at the foot of King Street into a residential and commercial complex in 1978. According to her obituary, she called the proposal “just one more example of the vultures preying upon the crown jewels of the city, the crown jewel being the waterfront.”

She penned a letter to the Department of the Interior that same year, inquiring whether the federal government had any interest in creating a national historic park along the waterfront. A response letter conveyed that the city’s waterfront did not qualify as a national historic park. She battled this issue three years later and noted in a 1981 Washington Post opinion piece that the city’s waterfront “has been an Indian hunting ground, a bustling merchants’ port, a national defense facility and, more recently, a tempting morsel for the jaws of development.”

A cyclist couple enjoy the festivities at the April event that commemorated the bike path’s 50th anniversary. Speakers included Rep. Don Beyer (VA-8). (Photo/Serdar Joraye)

The controversy prompted the federal government to sue the city over ownership of the waterfront. The suit was settled in 1981, and Alexandria and the National Park Service joined forces out of the courtroom to produce a comprehensive waterfront plan.

Pickering went on to tell The Post in 1984 that she had “not one single, tiny regret” about the lawsuit she helped prompt. Otherwise, she said, “there wouldn’t be any Oronoco Bay Park, no Founder’s Park, no Pommander Walk Park, the foot of King Street would not have been recaptured, it was all private property.”

Congressman Don Beyer said in remarks at the recent FOMVT 50th anniversary celebration, “In reading the history of the Trail what’s clear is it was the idea, vision and perseverance of citizen volunteers like you that made it a reality. We owe a major debt of gratitude to Alexandrians Ellen Pickering and Barbara Lynch who obtained the original 700 signatures to present to the Park Service. They wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

The trail has since served as a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy the fruits of Lynch and Pickering’s labors, including unrivaled scenic views of Washington and the opportunity to connect with regional trails including the Potomac Heritage, Custis, Rock Creek, Four Mile Run and Woodrow Wilson Bridge trails. Foot and bike traffic safely navigate sections at National Airport and the 14th Street and Memorial Bridges.

Attracting about a million users annually, it is one of the region’s, and the nation’s, most popular recreational trails. Jason Rhoads, who lives in the Mount Vernon area, has been biking the trail for six years.

“Besides its scenic beauty, I can cover long distances on this path with other active people,” Rhoads said. “I always see a mix of cultures enjoying the park. So many great people sharing outdoor activities and enjoying nature.”

Charles Patrick of Alexandria said the walk to Dyke Marsh Marina is among his favorites as he particularly enjoys watching the boats. He also enjoys catch and release fishing, typically largemouth bass.

Dyke Marsh is one of the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetlands in the Washington area. Containing 485 acres of tidal marsh, floodplain and swamp forest, it can be explored by boat or on foot. Its Haul Road Trail follows an old mining road through each type of habitat. The trail is three-quarters of a mile long, flat and paved with a combination of pea gravel and boardwalk. Boats may be rented at Belle Haven Marina. To request a ranger program at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, call 703-235-1530.

Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail hold regular activities for the public as well as monthly organizing meetings and volunteer opportunities, including cleanup, trail edging and invasive plant removal. All are welcome to volunteer, attend events and get involved in projects. If you have ideas to benefit the trail or would like to get more involved, please contact the FOMVT at https:// mountvernontrail.org/.

If you haven’t been on the Mount Vernon Trail in a while, you might want to give it a whirl and celebrate not only the advent of summer, but the gifts of those who saved this sacred space for our enjoyment. 

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