Perhaps like no other place in the region, the George Washington Memorial Parkway (“GW Parkway” in local parlance) unites the citizenry of the DMV in a scenic and agreeable way. While it’s true some see the parkway as merely a commuter route, others know this memorial to our first President to be a vista-rich stretch along the Potomac River that offers a unique landscape.
Some District and Maryland residents will tell you how much they enjoy crossing the river into Virginia to cycle, jog or walk on the Mount Vernon Trail. Residents in places like Crystal City are just a short mosey away from a riverside walk with killer views of Washington’s iconic memorials. Wherever you’re from, the green grass and trees in between the parkway and the river make for an ideal place for a picnic or a meditative pause. Weekend captains launch outings from one of several marinas. Maybe you like the birding at Dyke’s Marsh, tossing Frisbees at Gravelly Point or that challenge to bike all the way down to Mount Vernon.
Forgotten by most is the original intent of the parkway. Transportation and economic development were certainly part of the equation. The emphasis, however, on zipping down to the national shrine in speeds faster than George Washington ever dreamed about, arose some years after the initial idea was proposed. When M.B. Harlow of Alexandria came up with and pressed for the idea for a road in the 1880s, talk focused on the “monumental character” of an avenue or a boulevard to memorialize our first President. The horse and buggy were still around.
The years leading up to 1932, the Bicentennial of Washington’s birth, witnessed a strong coming together of patriotic efforts perhaps not seen since 1876. Groups and chapters lined up for the chance to do their special part to memorialize Washington.
One aspect of the commemorating was the planting of memorial trees. From Alexandria southward to Mount Vernon nine miles away, a handful of chapters planted one or more trees along the parkway and erected the corresponding bronze tablets.
But how to find these markers, several of which are either hidden in plain sight or are located on the opposite side of the parkway from the Mount Vernon Trail?
First and foremost, we need to thank Paul Kelsch. Without him there would be no list. Dr. Kelsch is an Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center. He has professional degrees in Architecture and Landscape Architecture and a PhD in Cultural Geography. Some of his current research includes the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
I also want to thank Craig Keith of Craign Keith Design in Old Town Alexandria for creating the map you see.
Of the 11 memorials planted, only six actually had markers, and five still remain. The sixth marker was for a memorial elm at the terminus at Mount Vernon, but the tree and the marker are both gone. Dr. Kelsch believes the tree might have died from Dutch elm disease. It’s not known what happened to the marker.
All five are along the Parkway between Belle Haven Park and Riverside Park. I included a sixth, the tablet at Mount Vernon that marks the opening of the parkway in 1932. (FYI, there are some markers (not tree-related) in Old Town that were erected in 1932).
If you plan to check these markers out, I want to emphasis the need to be careful.
The second marker north of Morningside is particularly dangerous. The small cut out where you park is in a blind spot. If you are driving, slow down and signal.
Also, the fourth one has a few parking spaces on the northbound side. If you park along Waynewood, be careful walking across the parkway (I’m not even sure it is legal to do so). Be aware many of the cars exceed the speed limit at levels perilous to pedestrians!
I had high hopes of finding a tree expert to go along with me to determine if the trees were all still there, what condition, etc., but was not successful in this endeavor. Perhaps something will emerge in this way in the future.
We do know that marker (number 1) for the honeylocust trees was moved from the median to where it is now.
There is also a marker at Riverside Park that says the following:
To commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of George Washington the citizens of the original Washington, Tyne and Wear, England present to the people of the United States 250 trees planted along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. 1732-1982
I have not been able to find anything on this.
Location: Belle Haven Park
Approximate Distance from Church Street: 1.5 miles
Tree Type: Honeylocust
Note: Tablet is located on grassy area between the parkway northbound and the western edge of the northernmost parking lot. It is about ten yards from the bus stop.
On May 17, 1932, The Washington Post reported on the unveiling ceremony that took place the day before. The Mount Vernon Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, dedicated eight trees which were “placed in the first two triangular islands south of Alexandria.” The bronze tablet commemorated the eight Presidents who were “sons of Virginia.”
The tablet was affixed to a granite stone that had been one of the old lock stones of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, built with Washington as supervisor. It was placed by the trees in the middle of the first triangular island.
Unveiling honors went to Mrs. Eleanor Selden Washington Howard, and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, widow of the late President. After the ceremony, invited guests moved over to Belle Haven Country Club for tea and cake.
Note: I’m not certain when it took place but the marker was moved to its current location near the bus stop.
These trees were planted in commemoration of the eight Presidents of the United States who were sons of Virginia.
George Washington, 1789-1797 • Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809 • James Madison, 1809-1817 • James Monroe, 1817-1825 • Wm. Henry Harrison, 1841-1841 • John Tyler, 1841-1845 • Zachary Taylor, 1849-1850 • Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921.
Erected 1932 by the Mt. Vernon Chapter N.S.D.A.R., Alexandria, Virginia.
Location: A cut out on southbound side, across from southern most part of Dyke Marsh. (Number on map should be on left hand side of parkway)
Approximate Distance from Church Street: 2.5 miles
Tree Type: oriental plane.
In memory of George Washington, 1732-1799. This tree planted by Fairfax County Chapter D.A.R. in the bicentennial year of his birth. 1932.
Location: Collingwood Road
Approximate Distance from Church Street: 4.5 miles
Note: Tablet is a couple of yards east of the trail, and about 100 yards north of the Collingwood Road intersection. The red oak stands alone.
Park: Along Collingwood Road.
Number on map should be on left hand side of parkway.
Memorial Tree, George Washington Bicentennial, 1732-1932.
Gen. J.E.B. Stuart Chapter No. 1851, Confederate Flag Chapter No. 2000, Robert E. Lee Chapter No. C44, United Daughters of the Confederacy and Children of the Confederacy in the District of Columbia, Registered American Tree Association.
Location: Near Waynewood Boulevard.
Approximate Distance from Church Street: 5.4 miles
Note: Tablet is located on the east side of the parkway between these two massive trees on a grassy mound. Several parking slots are right there on the same side. Or you can park where authorized on the west side along Waynewood Boulevard. Please be careful crossing parkway!
These willow oaks are planted in honour of the Bicentennial of George Washington by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the District of Columbia, 1732-1932
Location: Riverside Park
Approximate Distance from Church Street: 7.5 miles
Park: Ample parking in lot.
Note: Tablet is in between the northwest corner of the parking lot and the parkway.
The thirteen adjacent elms representing the thirteen original colonies were planted in commemoration of the Bi-Centennial celebration of George Washington’s birth and to revere the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.
Dedicated by the National Society Women Descendents of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery
Location: Mount Vernon
Park: Parking lot.
Note: Tablet is along the sidewalk that runs from the main parking lot to the entrance, about 50 yards from the entrance.
The Mount Vernon Memorial Highway was authorized by Congress as an activity of the United States Commission for the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the birth of George Washington.
The highway was designated and constructed under the direction of the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Public Roads. Construction started September 12, 1929, opened to traffic January 16, 1932. This highway was formally dedicated to the service of the people, November 15, 1932.