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Saving Washington's View

A History of the Battles to Protect Washington's Historic View

For more than 50 years the Ladies of Mount Vernon have been working to preserve George Washington’s view across the Potomac.

Washington's world famous view at sunrise (Walter Smalling)

George Washington's connections to the Potomac River ran deep. Washington was born near the Potomac at Pope’s Creek, and was raised by the shores of the magnificent river at Little Hunting Creek Plantation, eventually to be known as Mount Vernon.

As an adult, Washington recognized and celebrated the beauty of the Potomac and its connection to his life at Mount Vernon, once describing the Potomac as “one of the finest Rivers in the world.”1 In describing his return to private life following the American Revolution, Washington specifically mentioned the river’s proximity to Mount Vernon. Writing to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington explained that he had “become a private  citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life. . .solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments. . . .”2

Oil Tanks and Water Treatment Plants


Frances Payne Bolton,
Vice Regent for Ohio (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

In 1955 rumors of an oil tank farm on the banks of the Potomac River brought increasing fears that the timeless view from the Mansion’s Piazza was at risk of disappearing forever. Knowing this would irreversibly change the landscape across the river, Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, purchased the nearly 500 acres, which led her to organize one of the nation’s earliest land trusts. This purchase effectively stopped the planned construction of the tank farm, but the battle to save the majestic view was far from over.

A new threat surfaced in 1960 when the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) announced plans to build a water treatment plant on the shores of the Potomac facing Mount Vernon. The WSSC planned to exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire the land and destroy the waterfront and the view from Mount Vernon. Quick action was needed and alternate sites were proposed, yet WSSC was insistent on their initial location because, as they said “There’s nothing there.”



President and Mrs. Kennedy host a state dinner for the president of Pakistan at Mount Vernon in 1961 (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

Creating a National Park

Citizens and concerned groups rallied and went to Congress for help. A letter from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy raving about Mount Vernon and how the view should be protected helped seal the deal. On October 4, 1961, President Kennedy signed Public Law 87-362, effectively authorizing the creation of Piscataway National Park. The WSSC relented and agreed to select a site that would not detract from the Mount Vernon vista. The land was donated by Mrs. Bolton to the Accokeek Foundation; then additional land purchases by Mrs. Bolton and others helped to create Piscataway National Park, preserving the view from Mount Vernon. It wasn’t until Washington’s Birthday in 1968 that a ceremony was held officially establishing the park. The government continued to purchase land along the riverbank and the Park now encompasses over 4,650 acres (roughly the size of more than 3,500 football fields) and stretches six miles along the Maryland shoreline opposite George Washington’s home.

The Battle is Not Over

Over the next decades, more battles were fought and won over scenic easements to prevent trees from being cut and preventing utility companies or commercial entities from building on the land. There have been battles over water contamination that created layers of green and purple algae on the river’s surface. The Association even had to fight to prevent a large parcel of riverfront property that was once an amusement park from being developed with high-rise hotels and condominiums. Mount Vernon has worked closely with the National Park Service, The Conservation Fund, The Trust for Public Land, the Accokeek Foundation, and Maryland neighbors to protect additional acreage.

We take the responsibility to protect this view so seriously that we have even purchased properties at risk, so easements could be established that would protect a parcel from visible construction or the removal of trees. Recently, the Association worked closely with a developer to ensure a tree line was planted that would block a new shopping area from being visible from the East Lawn.

Without the efforts of so many before us and the ongoing efforts of so many today, the view from Mount Vernon would be unrecognizable.

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Notes

1. “George Washington to Arthur Young, 12 December 1793,” George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2 Letterbooks.

2. “George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, 1 February 1784,” The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.