Protecting General Washington’s Vista

Protecting General Washington’s Vista

Many worked to protect viewshed.

Visitors to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate marvel at the view from the General’s piazza — the quiet breadth of the Potomac, a passing boat, even an eagle soaring above the shore line. “No estate in the United America is more pleasantly situated than this” was Washington’s own assessment of the view.

The view from Mount Vernon is the same today as it was in Washington’s time. Considering the suburban sprawl around Washington D.C., why are there no high-rise condos across the river from Mount Vernon? Where are the million-dollar, waterfront mansions? Where is the asphalt and concrete —suburbia’s signature materials?

Thanks to a group of citizens from Virginia and Maryland, who have worked with federal, state, and local government officials for the past 50 years, Mount Vernon’s “viewshed” has not changed. This group has kept threatened development at bay, not just through perseverance, but also through political clout and money.

From Washington’s death to the time of World War II, both the areas around Mount Vernon and across the river were largely wooded tracts and farmland. But in the 1950s, bulldozers pushed residential and commercial development outward from the District, bringing with them a threat to General Washington’s treasured vista.

The first group to recognize potential encroachment along the Maryland shore was not the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, but a collection of landowners in Prince George’s county calling themselves the Moyaone Association (MOY-un). The first of these were Henry and Alice Ferguson, who bought a farm in the 1920s and called it “Hard Bargain.” Through the 1930s and '40s, Fergusons' friends and others bought land near the river, divided it into parcels of no less than five acres, and established covenants against further development and commercial use. They wanted to keep the environment as natural as possible, vigorously opposing the strip and build approach so common to most suburb construction of the time. They named themselves after a colonial Indian village near Accokeek, and their rural retreat became known as the Moyaone Reserve.

ONE OF THE FOUNDING Moyaone officers, Charles Wagner, heard a disquieting rumor during the post-war suburban boom. “In 1955, word got around that the Connelly farm at the end of the road was being considered as a tank farm by a major oil company,” Wagner wrote later. “I telephoned Ceil Wall, director of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, with the news.” Alarmed, Wall alerted the Ladies, with Mount Vernon’s Vice Regent, U.S. Rep. Frances Payne Bolton (R, Ohio) reacting aggressively. She immediately bought the Connelly farm for $330,000.

Bolton’s bold move led to the 1957 creation of the Accokeek Foundation, which is dedicated to controlling the “Mount Vernon prospect,” a six-mile stretch of the Maryland shore between Piscataway Creek and Marshal Hall. The latter, a country manor built by Thomas Marshall in 1725, was also, in 1957, the site of a riverfront amusement park complete with Ferris wheel and roller coaster. The foundation, led by its first president, Bolton, sought control of the land through cooperative efforts between the Moyaone Association, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, the National Park Service, and other like-minded organizations. Accokeek’s first purchase was a 379-acre parcel owned by Arundel Sand and Gravel.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the organization that treats the area’s sewage, disrupted Accokeek’s land acquisition scheme in 1960 when it announced plans to build a treatment facility on Mockley point across from Mount Vernon. Expecting to use its own eminent domain power, the WSSC chose the location because, in the words of a spokesman, “there’s nothing there.” Early reaction to its proposal prompted the WSSC to promise, in all seriousness, to model the buildings after Mount Vernon to lessen the impact on the view. But everyone knew, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, that sewage plant is a sewage plant is a sewage plant.

In order to stave off WSSC, the Accokeek Foundation and the Ladies Association sought help from the federal government. The two groups’ efforts, including the enlistment of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, yielded the creation of Piscataway Park in 1961. The enabling legislation not only permitted the National Park Service to acquire of riverfront land by both purchase and donation, but also fostered the use of scenic easements to induce private landowners to limit development. With the federal park a reality, Accokeek successfully convinced Maryland, then Prince George’s and Charles counties to grant property tax credits to landowners in return for a scenic easement and permanent protection of the 80-square-mile Mount Vernon viewshed.

BY 1968, the National Park Service had acquired enough riverfront land to formally establish Piscataway Park; Ms. Bolton donated her parcel to the park through the Accokeek Foundation. The Marshall Hall parcel was not included in the park because of the objections of the owner Joe Goldstein.

A successful tobacco farmer, Thomas Marshall built in 1725 what was then a substantial country seat. It had a brick exterior, and ultimately through later additions, three prominent chimneys. John Augustine Washington III, who sold Mount Vernon to the Ladies Association in 1858, owned Marshall Hall from 1851 until his death during the Civil War in 1861. The house survived into the 20th century despite not having the protective umbrella of a preservation society or government agency.

In 1889, the Mount Vernon and Marshall Hall Steamboat Company bought Marshall Hall. The company offered twice daily and summer-time evening cruises between the District, Mount Vernon, and Marshall Hall. It also opened an amusement park at Marshall Hall to entice more passengers to ride its steamboat “Charles Macalester.” (The Mount Vernon trolley company tried the same gambit when it built Luna Park, just south of what is now Crystal City.) The popularity of Marshall Hall peaked in the early 1950s when legalized gambling in Charles County permitted the operation of 185 slot machines at the amusement park.

Goldstein, whose brother was Maryland’s comptroller, bought the amusement park in 1969 and quickly announced his plans to build “Spirit of America,” a theme park similar to Disney’s. This caused the Accokeek Foundation to renew its efforts to bring Marshall Hall into Piscataway Park. While 1974 federal legislation authorized that transfer, government foot-dragging coupled with opposition by Goldstein, drove the National Park Service’s acquisition cost up to $10 million, ten times what it might have been just a few years earlier. The terms of the deal allowed Goldstein to continue operations of the amusement park until late 1979.

The repeal of the gambling laws in Charles County in the late 1950s presaged the slow decline of the park. By 1977, when a summer storm knocked over the rollercoaster, the place was a dilapidated, run-down affair. A 1981 fire — arson, according to authorities — destroyed all but the masonry walls and chimneys of Marshall Hall itself. Listed as the largest house in southern Maryland built before 1740, the remaining shell now sits forlornly in a grass field, belatedly protected by an unattractive chain-link fence. Despite efforts by family member Peggy Marshall, the Park Service has declined to rebuild the house.

UNDETERRED, MARSHALL is attempting to raise money by herself. “We have collected $10,000 so far,” Marshall said, “and we are using that money to restore the Marshall family cemetery.”

Land acquisition for Piscataway Park continued through the 1990s. Jim Rosenstock of the National Park Service said that there are now 4,595 total acres protected from development; 1,666 make up Piscataway Park, with 2,929 acres of privately-owned land protected through scenic easements. “I think we have it locked up,” Rosenstock said.

The Accokeek Foundation operates several attractions within Piscataway Park. There is the National Colonial Farm, operating as it would have in those times, with heritage breeds of animals. Also, the foundation maintains a native tree arboretum and an “ecosystem” farm, where the staff works to create a productive vegetable operation from a worn-out field. Boat trips back and forth to Mount Vernon were available until hurricane Isabel wrecked the park’s pier. Both the farms and Marshall Hall can be accessed from Indian Head Highway, Maryland Route 210. “We are isolated out here,” said staff member Annmarie Buckley. “People are surprised to find a quiet spot so close to the city.”

Tourists standing outside the Mount Vernon mansion marvel at the river view. When asked, everyone agreed with efforts to deny development of the Maryland shore. “It’s as it should be,” remarked Doug Schendel from Wisconsin.