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The single-most important and lasting tribute to George Washington during the bicentennial of his birth was "the world's most modern motorway," which opened with tremendous fanfare on January 16, 1932.

The George Washington Memorial Parkway is a picturesque drive, maintained by the National Park Service, that runs the length of the Potomac River through Virginia from the Capital Beltway traversing by vistas of the monuments in Washington, D.C., through Old Town Alexandria before arriving at Mount Vernon, the home of the first President.  

Today one can travel from Washington, D.C. to Mount Vernon in approximately 30 minutes by way of the Parkway.  However this wasn't always the case.

Early Travel by Steamboat

Throughout most of the 19th century, travelers who chose the land route were forced to negotiate bumpy and often hazardous roads to reach the home of George Washington.  As a result, the majority of guests to Mount Vernon arrived by steamboat.

Steamboats ran as early as 1874 to Mount Vernon, the first the Mary Washington was built by Quaker Paul Hillman troth in 1874.  It held 1,500 passengers and would run round trip to Mount Vernon for 50 cents and included admission to the Estate.

Learn More About Travel by Boat

Prince Akihito and wife Princess Michiko arriving by Steamship - © Getty Images

Electric Railway

1892 construction began on the Alexandria & Mount Vernon Electric Railway connecting Alexandria and Mount Vernon.  The trolley was cheap, convenient, and enormously popular, immediately replacing the steamboat as the preferred means of visiting Mount Vernon.  In 1896 the service was extended in to Washington, D.C. connecting it to the Belt Line Street Railroad Company's tracks.

At Mount Vernon, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association insisted that only a modest terminal be constructed next to the trolley turnaround. They were afraid that the dignity of the site would be marred by unrestricted commercial development and persuaded financier Jay Gould to purchase and donate thirty-three acres outside the main gate for protection.

Trolley Station and Tea Room at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Avenue Association

In the 1880s, a group of businessmen in Alexandria attempted to boost local commerce by advocating for a "national road" to Mount Vernon. They formed the Mount Vernon Avenue Association in September 1887, and lobbied the federal government to build a grand formal boulevard lined with imposing statues and memorials.

In 1989, Congress ignored the more grandiose aspects of the proposal and appropriated $10,000 for a survey by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  However the advancement of the Electric Railway dealt a blow to the Mount Vernon Avenue Association that it could not recover from.

Proposed Mount Vernon Avenue Boulevard

First Car Arrives at Mount Vernon

The first automobile with tourists arrived at Mount Vernon in 1904.  The trip took six hours roundtrip from Washington, D.C via U.S. Route 1.  By the mid 1920's Mount Vernon was inundated with visitors arriving by car.

Seeking to remedy these conditions in time for the nationwide celebration of the bicentennial of Washington's birth in 1932, Congress authorized the construction of Mount Vernon Memorial Highway in May 1928.

The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) was tasked with designing an attractive and efficient parkway that would accommodate the rapidly growing tourist and commuter traffic while preserving scenery, linking sites associated with Washington's life, and providing recreational opportunities along the Potomac shoreline.

George Washington Memorial Parkway in 1935

Public Law 493

The establishment of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission was the critical event which got the highway bill through Congress.  In 1928, Moore and Senator Claude A. Swanson introduced identical bills (S.1369 and H.R. 4625) to build a memorial highway from Arlington Memorial Bridge to Mount Vernon at a cost of $4.5 million. The Washington Bicentennial Commission would oversee the project, with support from the United States Department of Agriculture with surveys, architectural and engineering plans, land acquisition and construction.   On January 25, 1929, the bicentennial commission decided the highway should follow the Potomac river route.

The parkway's original name was the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway, but Congress changed it to The George Washington Memorial Parkway in 1929 before it opened to the public on January 16, 1932.

Marker at the terminus at Mount Vernon

Traveling Today

Today visitors can travel to Mount Vernon on the Parkway from points North and Northwest.  

Parkway designers took advantage of the region's natural beauty to produce a richly varied landscape. Towering hardwood forests alternate with broad grassy areas accented with clumps of eastern red cedar and occasional dogwoods.

Patriotic groups placed a number of memorial trees and tablets along the parkway and at the Mount Vernon terminus, where a bronze tablet commemorates the parkway's completion that still exists in the Mount Vernon terminus today.

Driving Directions

Mount Vernon by Bike

In addition to automobile traffic, the George Washington Memorial Parkway also contains bike trails that follow the route along the river. Mount Vernon partners with Bike and Roll in Alexandria if you would like to rent a bike and cycle to Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon by Bike