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Family Tree of the National Park System
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National Capital Parks is the oldest part of the National Park System, far older than Yellowstone, and traces its origin to the founding of the District of Columbia in 1790. In that year the President was authorized to appoint three Federal Commissioners to lay out a district ten miles square on the Potomac River as the permanent seat of the Federal Government. The commissioners were entrusted with control of all public lands within the District of Columbia, including parks. The original office established by the commissioners in 1791 was succeeded over the years by several offices with other names but similar functions, the legal succession continuing unbroken. As Cornelius W. Heine points out in his valuable work, A History of National Capital Parks (Washington: National Park Service, 1953) today's National Capital Parks office is a direct lineal descendant of the original office established by the first commissioners of the District of Columbia in 1791.

District of Columbia authorized
L'Enfant Plan for National Capital
17 original reservations acquired for the District of Columbia
National Capital Parks placed under newly created Department of Interior
Ford's Theatre acquired
National Capital Parks placed under Chief Engineer, U.S. Army
Rock Creek Park authorized
House Where Lincoln Died acquired
Potomac Park authorized
District of Columbia Centennial
McMillan Plan
Custis-Lee Mansion restoration authorized
George Washington Memorial Parkway authorized
National Capital Parks added to National Park System

President Washington was intensely interested in the new seat of government. Early in 1791 he met with owners or proprietors of lands proposed for the new city and signed a purchase agreement which resulted in acquisition of 541 acres in seventeen different reservations. Lands within these original reservations became the foundation of National Capital Parks. Reservation No. 1, containing 83 acres, became the site of the Executive Mansion and grounds, Lafayette Square, and the President's Park south of the Mansion. Reservation No. 2, containing 227 acres, became the site of the Capitol and its grounds, and provided land for the eastern half of the Mall. Reservation No. 3, containing 27 acres, provided the site for the future Washington Monument. By 1898 a total of 301 park areas had been developed on the lands included in the 17 reservations purchased by President Washington in 1791.

Washington engaged Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant to prepare a plan for the new capital city. The L'Enfant Plan proposed a city of beauty and magnificence, its central portion dominated by the triangle formed by the Capitol on Jenkin's Hill — "a pedestal waiting for a monument" — the Executive Mansion, and the Washington Monument, linked by the grand Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue. In addition to the Mall, L'Enfant envisaged a Congress Garden and a President's Park; fifteen squares, each embellished with statues, columns, or obelisks; five grand fountains; an equestrian statue of Washington; a Naval Column; and a zero milestone. From this plan are derived many of the important features of today's National Capital Parks.

Rock Creek Park was authorized on September 27, 1890, two days after Sequoia and three days before Yosemite. Congress carried over some of the language of the Yellowstone Act into all three acts. Like Yellowstone, Rock Creek Park was "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States," where all timber, animals, and curiosities were to be retained "in their natural condition, as nearly as possible." Though not a National Park, Rock Creek Park is today one of the major urban parks in the United States.

The District of Columbia celebrated its centennial as the National Capital in 1900. Unfortunately, important elements of L'Enfant's plan had been neglected over the years while unsightly developments intruded on open spaces, the most conspicuous being no less than a railroad station on the Mall. As a consequence of the Centennial, Senator James McMillan of Michigan led a movement to correct past mistakes and make a new plan for the entire District of Columbia park system. Four eminent experts were invited to prepare the plan — Daniel H. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The result was the famous McMillan Plan for The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia published in 1902. This great document, a landmark in city planning in the United States, rescued and reestablished the main features of the L'Enfant Plan and added major new features, including an extension of the Mall westward, creation of East and West Potomac Parks, and provision of sites for the future Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. It gave impetus to construction of the Arlington Memorial Bridge and acquisition of new park areas. Modern Washington, D.C., one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, is based on the L'Enfant and McMillan Plans. In 1916, when establishment of the National Park Service was under consideration in Congress, J. Horace McFarland cited the beauty of the National Capital, "expressing the dignity of the Nation," as an example which helped to justify establishing a National Park Service and System.

Space here permits mentioning only a few of the highlights of the rich history of National Capital Parks. The Washington Monument was dedicated in 1885, and the Lincoln Memorial authorized in 1911; Ford's Theatre was acquired by the government in 1866, the House Where Lincoln Died in 1896; and the Custis-Lee Mansion was authorized for restoration in 1925. In 1930 Congress authorized the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the oldest unit of today's System classified as a Recreational Area. These and other historic sites, buildings, and memorials constituted a major group of properties when National Capital Parks was added to the System in 1933.

National Capital Parks marked the entrance of the National Park Service into the urban park field, a field in which the Service is today demonstrating national leadership through its Parks for All Seasons program, urban beautification, and ultimately a series of National Urban Recreation Areas in the major cities of the United States.

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Last Modified: Sat, May 12 2001 10:08 am PDT

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