Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’

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The Jefferson Pier

When tourists on the grounds of The Washington Monument gaze up at the tribute to our nation’s first President, they seldom are aware of the other, smaller but similarly-shaped stone monument that is also located there on the same grounds, in the shadows of the 555-foot obelisk that towers over the National Mall.  Or if they do happen to notice it, they have no idea what it is.  It is called the Jefferson Pier, and it is only 391 feet on a northwest diagonal from the center of the Washington Monument. However, it pre-dates the Washington Monument. In fact, the original stone monument served as a marker, aiding surveyors and serving as a benchmark during construction of the monument.

On December 18th, 1804, a simple granite obelisk was erected at the intersection of lines from the front doors of The White House, known at that time as the Executive Mansion, and the U.S. Capitol Building. That intersection is etched on the top of the stone marker. The stone was located along 16th Street, almost due south of the center of the White House, due west of the center of the Capitol building, and due north of the center of the Jefferson Memorial (MAP). It was intended as part of a meridian system used to align city streets and in the development of the young nation’s new capital.  It was also the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

President Thomas Jefferson wished for the new national capital to be a new “first meridian,” the longitude (0′ 0″) from which distance and time would be measured. But the 16th Street meridian never became the official prime meridian. Instead, a meridian on 24th Street did.  Then in 1884, the world recognized the longitude of Greenwich, England as the prime meridian, and it remains so today.

To understand how the meridian stone came to be known as “The Jefferson Pier” it is necessary to first understand that the geography of the city was originally much different than it is now. Tiber Creek flowed through that area of the city, and the entire Mall area west of where the Washington Monument is now located was under water. Tiber Creek, along with several other small streams, were eventually transformed into the Washington City Canal, a system that connected the Washington Waterfront, the Capitol Building, the White House and other areas downtown with The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Towpath‘s first lock in Georgetown during the mid to late 1800’s. Boats and barges navigating the Washington City Canal via the C&O Canal and the Potomac River routinely used the meridian stone marker as an anchoring post. Although it was never officially designated so, the name used by boat captains and others stuck, and the prime meridian marker they used as an anchoring post for their boats came to be referred to as the Jefferson Pier.

The original stone marker was destroyed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1874. But the spot was recovered and a replacement marker was erected December 21, 1889. This is the stone that remains today. The stone reads, “Position of Jefferson Pier Erected Dec. 18, 1804. Recovered and Re-Erected Dec. 2, 1889. District Of Columbia.” A line has also been etched out on the face of the stone to indicate where the shoreline of the Potomac River once reached the Pier Stone.

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[Click on the thumbnail above to view the full size photo]

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East Potomac Park and Hains Point

East Potomac Park and Hains Point

East Potomac Park is a section of Potomac Park located south of the Jefferson Memorial and the 14th Street Bridge, and sits on a peninsula that drives a grassy wedge between the Washington Channel and the Potomac River on the south side of the Tidal Basin (MAP). The 328-acre finger of land is bordered on the east by the Washington Channel, on the west by the Potomac River, Hains Point at the southern end, and is separated from West Potomac Park by the iconic Jefferson Memorial.

The peninsula on which the park is located was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  After a disastrous flood in 1881, the Corps of Engineers dredged a deep channel in the Potomac and used the material to create the current banks of the river and raise much of the land near The White House and along Pennsylvania Avenue.  Much of the dredged material was also utilized to build up existing mudflats in the Potomac River as well as sandbars which had been created by resultant silting, including the peninsula which led to the creation of Potomac Park on March 3, 1897.

In addition to providing terrific views of the city, East Potomac Park also features many of Washington’s famous Kanzan cherry trees.  These double-blossoming cherry trees line Ohio Drive and bloom about two weeks after the single-blossoming Toshino variety that attracts throngs of tourists to the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin during the National Cherry Blossom Festival each spring.

Ohio Drive, which is a six-mile loop that runs the perimeter of East Potomac Park, is a popular route with bicyclists, runners and walkers, and inline skaters.  And a scenic riverfront sidewalk, which winds around the park’s shoreline, remains a popular place for fishing, despite falling apart and literally sinking into the river in places.  The park is also home to one 18-hole and two 9-hole public courses at the East Potomac Park Golf Course, a driving range and a miniature golf course, a public swimming pool (the East Potomac Park Aquatic Center), tennis courts, picnic facilities, a playground, and a recreation center.

The southern end of the park at the end of the peninsula is known as Hains Point.  This location offers stunning views of the river, as well as Fort McNair and the National War College in D.C. to the east. To the west, visitors can watch planes take off and land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, located across the Potomac River in Virginia.  Hains Point was also formerly the home of a popular public artwork entitled “The Awakening,” a 70-foot sculpture depicting the arousing of a bearded giant who is embedded in the earth.  However, the sculpture was sold in 2008, and the new owner moved it to its current location at National Harbor in Prince Georges County, Maryland.

It is rare for anything in D.C. to lack controversy or intrigue, and East Potomac Park is no exception.  In 2004, an area of four acres adjacent to the National Park Service offices at Ohio and Buckeye drives was enclosed by a 10-foot high security fence and large beige metal buildings were constructed. The action, initiated by the U.S. Navy, bypassed normal multi-agency review procedures usually required for the use or taking of Federal parkland.  The Navy, which operates the site, calls the work a “utility assessment and upgrade” and will not say if the project is classified or whether it has a name.  Nor will the Navy say how much it cost, how many people were on the job or why it was needed.

When questioned about activity at the site, D.C.’s non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, advised that she “is aware of what’s going on but cannot comment.”  Similarly, Frederick J. Lindstrom, acting secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, advised that he had been advised that it would be illegal for him to discuss the matter.  Lindstrom went on to state, “Let’s just say when they’re finished, you’ll be glad they’ve done what they’ve done.”

Athough the Navy originally advised that work at the complex would last approximately four years, a decade later the ongoing activity and construction that goes on inside the security fence, involving regular arrival and departure of dump trucks, remains a mystery.  Amid the secrecy, theories about the four-acre complex and hangar-like structures abound.  In a city which contains radiation tracking instruments atop the Federal Reserve building, biowarfare sensors analyzing the air on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution castle, and antiaircraft systems on a rooftop next to the White House, the Navy’s secretive activity on East Potomac Park is presumed by many to be related to national security.

Although we may never know the details of the Navy’s activity there, that should not prevent visitors from enjoying the remaining 324 acres of this active yet pastoral park.

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Constitution Gardens

Constitution Gardens

Mostly unknown and overlooked by the millions of tourists visiting the many other nearby memorials on the National Mall, Constitution Gardens occupies 50 prime acres of landscaped grounds approximately halfway between The Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial, and includes a lake with an island, winding sidewalks and pathways lined with benches,  and approximately 5,000 oak, maple, dogwood, elm and crabapple trees.  Located to the west of 17th Street and south of Constitution Avenue in northwest D.C. (MAP), the gardens are bordered on the west by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on the south by The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.  But despite its central location on the National Mall, it is a quiet haven in the heart of the bustling capital city.  

The land that became Constitution Gardens was originally submerged beneath the Potomac River, but was dredged at the beginning of the 20th century by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The land then became the location for the Navy’s main and munitions buildings until 1970 when President Richard Nixon, who had once who had served in the offices as a navy officer, ordered his former workplace to be torn down to make way for a park to be established on the land.  In 1976, Constitution Gardens was finally dedicated as part of America’s Bicentennial celebration as a “living legacy tribute.”  It has been a separate park unit in the National Park Service since 1982.

In contrast to its normally peaceful setting, Constitution Gardens became the site of a bizarre standoff between Federal law enforcement officers and a disgruntled tobacco farmer named Dwight Watson during two days in mid-March back in 2003.  Watson, a tobacco farmer from North Carolina, blamed Federal tobacco policies and the cutting of tobacco subsidies for the increasing difficulty he was experiencing in making a living on his rural tobacco farm, which had been in his family for five generations.  Wearing a military helmet and displaying an upside down American flag, the disgruntled farmer travelled to D.C. and drove his tractor into the center of the lake, claiming that he had explosives.  This prompted the evacuation of the area and holding a SWAT team composed of approximately 200 FBI Agents and Park Police officers at bay for 48 hours before he surrendered.  Watson was eventually convicted of destroying federal property for digging up part of the island and damaging a retaining wall during the standoff, but no other monuments or memorials were harmed.

The more often than not tranquil Constitution Gardens becomes uncharacteristically full of activity each year when it is the site of an annual naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens hosted by the National Park Service.  But on the day I rode there, it was just as I hoped it would be – virtually deserted, except for a family of geese and a few mallard ducks.

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