If you look downstream on the Clara Barton Parkway, you’ll see the “Glen Echo Turnaround”, an interesting traffic arrangement if ever there was one. The inbound exit for Glen Echo merges with the outbound main traffic lanes before passing under a highway bridge with no traffic, a bridge to nowhere. Meanwhile, if one were to continue inbound on the parkway, the road reduces from four lanes to two, before re-opening to four, and then back to two. What’s going on?
What’s going on is a testament to an unfinished, region-wide building plan to connect the Washington, DC area with a series of parkways.
But after a slew of building efforts beginning in the late 1920’s, by the 1950’s, the federal government’s massive land acquisition and building efforts to construct parkways throughout the Washington, DC area was showing signs of slowing down. Land was becoming more expensive and legal mechanisms for condemnations more costly. And although the expression was still about 20 years off, a growing environmental and parks movement began to question why prime parkland along the Potomac River was being turned into a road.
The most notorious of the local parkway plans called for a parkway from Great Falls, Maryland to Cumberland, Maryland along the towpath you are standing on right now, essentially extending the Clara Barton Parkway for an additional 170 miles. In 1954, supporters said this parkway would open the river and Potomac Valley to enjoyment by all. Detractors, led most famously by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, said the towpath was, “a refuge, a place of retreat…a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.”
Guess who won? In what would have been unthinkable just twenty years earlier, the extended parkway was not developed. The eventual preservation of the C&O Canal as a national park can be in part attributed to the public outcry against the construction of this parkway.
Even the full build out of the Clara Barton Parkway, conceived as a four lane highway downstream of here, was abandoned, resulting in bridges to nowhere and the interesting traffic patterns you see today.
Except for a few small additions to existing highways, the death of the parkway on the C&O Canal towpath marked the end of parkway construction in Washington, DC. And while it may have ended in controversy, this brief period, roughly 40 years, preserved or created thousands of acres of parkland around the capital city.
The incomplete system today can seem like a paradox – protecting the shoreline of the Potomac River as a park, but carrying four lanes of gridlocked traffic right next to it. A hundred years ago, Americans combined their love of parks and the automobile, and like any good love story, it’s complicated. Is it possible to have preservation and development? Can the two even compliment each other? Walk or drive down to Lock six to learn more...