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Another Perspective on Nature

Volunteer spends retirement piecing together local history at Great Falls Park.

Standing overlooking the waters at Great Falls Park, Bob Eldridge, a volunteer in park (VIP) at Great Falls Park, sees both that the waters are at average height as well as their place in history.

"I have two main interests, the historical and outdoors," Eldridge says about his volunteering. The Reston resident has been volunteering at the park since 1996.

"I was an American History major back in college, so I always go back to that. Since I've been here at the park, I've done a lot of reading on the history of the canal. The physical aspects of it, the politics of the time, the issues — the one I like to talk about now is how relevant the history of the late 1800s is to today." As evidence, Eldridge referred to the Mount Vernon Compact, a treaty between Maryland and Virginia allowing use of the Potomac River for interstate commerce. The compact was cited in last year's Supreme Court case that decided which state had primary control over the river. "That was 230 years ago, but it's relevant today," Eldridge said.

For Eldridge, a retiree after spending 32 years as a U.S. Government Central Intelligence Officer, first as an analyst and then as a manager, volunteering at the park is an extension of the interests he explored with his family long before he came to work at the park.

"My folks, they dragged me to every historical place around," said Katie Eldridge, his daughter. "I love local history."

The family has visited national parks around the country, expressing favor for those in the Pacific Northwest, "And, of course, Great Falls," said Bob Eldridge. When Katie Eldridge came home from college, she volunteered at Great Falls Park as a way to occupy herself while looking for full-time work. When she accepted a job, her father picked up her shifts in the Visitor Center while she still volunteered on the weekends.

"IN A LOT OF CASES, volunteers that staff the Visitor Center are the visitors' first contact with the park," said Peter Lonsway, the park ranger in charge of volunteers. Volunteer Center VIPs need to have good communication skills, a professional attitude, be able to think quickly and know the park, Lonsway said.

"There are a lot of different types of volunteer positions — hands on, manual labor, out in the park with people," Lonsway said.

In addition to working in the Volunteer Center, Eldridge keeps records of the volunteers' hours spent contributing to the park. His other project is researching the Great Falls Amusement Park that opened at Great Falls in 1906, spawning a light rail system from Roslyn to the amusement park, which featured a carousel.

He keeps a scrapbook of items collected, detailing the history of the amusement park and the railroad, the bed of which became Old Dominion Drive. The stations along the railroad often became roads. The names are familiar: Ball's Hill, Ingleside, Difficult for Difficult Run.

"Even though the rail system was out of business by the 1930s, it aided the development of McLean and other villages along the way," said Eldridge. "It opened up the site to a lot of people who never would have seen it."

He and Betty Burchell, a former volunteer in her 80s who died last year, worked on the project together, sharing in the discovery of Dickie's Station, a station stop of which they had not been previously aware. They found the name documented on a list of distances between stops.

"Betty, by tramping around, found the water tower for the train. Nobody that we knew of knew of it, but it makes sense; it was the end of the line," Eldridge said.

Eldridge hopes to eventually write a page-long summary of the railroad or a park brochure. "The key is taking the little pieces and putting them in a coherent package that visitors can read."

"IF YOU COME on a Saturday or a Sunday, it's like an international bazaar, the smells of all different kinds of cooking. It's great," said Eldridge. He routinely makes rounds outside, taking questions from visitors.

Lonsway credits Eldridge with helping develop the bike volunteer program, which sends volunteers on bicycles around the park as a way to more quickly reach visitors.

"We're only a little over 20,000 employees in the National Park Service," said Lonsway. "In a lot of way volunteers are the driving force behind the programs parks offer."

"We've always done volunteer work and been active that way," said Katie Eldridge. "Not to sound cheesy," she said of her father, "but he's a kind soul that will help people out and he enjoys doing it."

"I've got to leave you with one commercial: We always need volunteers," Bob Eldridge said.