Rock Creek Park: Improvements – Washington DC


The New Deal contributed substantially to the betterment of Rock Creek Park in the 1930s.  This involved a number of federal agencies.

Rock Creek Park is a key greenway in the District of Columbia and, at 1750 acres, is almost twice the size of Central Park in New York.  It was established by Congress in 1890, making it officially a National Park at the time.  It featured prominently in the far-reaching plans for the District of Columbia by the McMillan Commission in 1901-02 and the Olmsted Brothers report of 1918, which envisioned a major park with a scenic parkway running through it.

In 1926, Congress created a National Capital Park and Planning Commission to oversee all the parks in the District of Columbia.  At the dawn of the New Deal, the parks commission came under the National Park Service (NPS), when all parks, parkways and memorials around Washington DC were consolidated by Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.   

The NPS immediately took charge of Rock Creek park’s improvement.  It assigned landscape architect Malcolm Kirkpatrick and plant pathologist E. P. Meinecke to survey the park’s condition. As Timothy Davis (1996, p 83) notes:  “Both men were appalled with the condition of the park’s road system, woodlands, streams, and structures, which they attributed to poor management, inadequate appropriations, and confusion caused by the park’s status as a combination urban park and nature reserve, along with an inability to develop a proper relationship between automobile use and other park values.”

So the Park Service enlisted the aid of New Deal public works and unemployment relief agencies to improve the park.  Here are the general outlines of that work; further details are provided on related projects at Rock Creek Park. (NB: specific locations are often impossible to determine from archival sources).

The Public Works Administration (PWA) gave money for five new footbridges and work on the bridle paths. The five bridges were built in 1934-35. We are not certain if the CCC  built those five bridges, but it is most likely.

The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) worked in Rock Creek Park from 1933 to 1942,  and had a camp there from 1938 to 1942 (Camp NP-14-DC). A 1936 Washington Daily News article described CCC work in the park 1933-1936: “Bridle paths extended; Bingham Drive extended to make new entrance to park; five bridle paths and three foot bridges erected; picnic grove and play equipment installed; police and caretaker’s lodge erected; Pierce Mill restored.”  

A HABS Survey report details CCC work in the park from 1937 to 1942. This included a field house, two garages, and a section of Beach Drive.  The enrollees landscaped around Pierce Mill, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway overpass, and removed ‘infected’ trees.  They further engaged in experimental erosion control, emergency flood control, cleared the creek channel and put rip rap along the channel near the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.  

In addition, CCC ‘boys’ from Camp NP-6-VA (Falls Church) came over to build 2.2 miles of bridle paths and Camp NP-8-VA [Arlington] enrollees built a stone latrine addition to the Police Lodge. (HABS 858)

In 1936, Works Progress Administration (WPA) teams were used for park improvement work, adding top soil and replanting vegetation, repairing and adding walkways (Post 1936).

In 1937, 250 WPA enrollees built a recreation center on the site of the defunct Brightwood Reservoir.

Rock Creek Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 23, 1991.


Source notes

Civilian Conservation Corps Activities in the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, National Capital Parks-Central, Washington, DC, HABS DC-858.

Timothy Davis, Rock Creek Park Road System, HAER DC-55, 1996.

National Archives, Record Group 69, “Microfilmed Index to WPA Projects.”


National Archives, Record Group 69, Records of the Work Projects Administration, “Newspaper clippings file, 1935-1942”

“New Deal Projects Aid Many Park Developments in Capital,” Washington Daily News, July 23, 1936;

“350 jobs added to city’s share of WPA boost,” Washington Post, December 28, 1937, p. 13

Howard F. Wentworth, “Authorities justify million expended on district parks,” Washington Post, June 7, 1936, p. X7

National Park Service

Crestwood History Blog

Project originally submitted by Brent McKee - on May 11, 2012.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker.

We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.


Location Info

Rock Creek Park
Washington, DC 20011

Coordinates: 38.9563, -77.0478

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