This is the second of two articles on Dyke Marsh’s human history, based on a presentation by Matthew Virta to the 90 people who attended the Nov. 14 meeting of the Friends of Dyke Marsh. Virta is the Cultural Resources Program Manager for the George Washington Memorial Parkway, U.S. National Park Service. The first article was posted on Monday.
After the Civil War, rowdy activities like drinking, gambling and “amorous pursuits” that had been tolerated in wartime were driven underground or to the river, Virta explained, recreation that spawned the Potomac River ark boat or ark. Ostensibly a small house boat, these arks probably provided customers services beyond lodging. The arks were 24-feet-by-10-feet in size with a 12-inch draft and moored in the marsh and river where local, state and federal jurisdictional lines were fuzzy and law enforcement confusing. Also, some houses were built just off the Virginia shoreline on pilings, presumably supporting various daunting adventurers.
An early 20th century postcard advertises “Dyke” as a fishing and hunting “resort,” showing an ark moored against a surviving section of the Augustine Smith dike and connected by a small suspension bridge. Virta questions if hunting and fishing were the primary attractions, reporting that local lore has sustained tales of bootleggers operating stills in the wilds of Dyke Marsh, often visited in the blackness of the night by small skiffs commanded by armed individuals who would take products away for sale. A 1931 Washington Post article recounts that police raided Gus Quayle’s place on the Dyke near New Alexandria after watching him haul liquor from the bottom of the river and making a sale. After they arrested him, the police discovered 138 bottles of alleged home brew and seven pints of alleged liquor stashed in gunny sacks under the water.
In the early 1890s, the first developers moved into the area, just south of Great Hunting Creek. The New Alexandria Land and River Improvement
Company bought 1,600 acres and began building houses and businesses, including the Carson Handle Company and Mount Vernon Spoke Company, which went bankrupt in the 1920s.
Also in the 1890s, the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Railway was built, an electric rail line from Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon estate with a stop known as “The Dyke.” The rail line paralleled the river in the Dyke Marsh area. Rail cars transported tourists to and from George Washington’s home and hauled produce from area farmers. Fredrick Tilp in his 1978 book, This Was Potomac River, wrote that several bawdy houses opened in New Alexandria concurrent with building the railroad. The New Alexandria Land and River Improvement Corporation then went bankrupt and one of its trustees, James Swartz, gave nearly 600 acres, including Dyke Marsh, to Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University. A 1913 Washington Star Rambler article focused on the diversity of
birds in the wetlands.
Then came the highway builders. In 1928, Congress passed legislation authorizing a survey and construction of a memorial highway from Mount Vernon Estate to Arlington Memorial Bridge, which when completed became the first segment of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, today a national park, of which the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve is a unit.
Parkway designers highlighted Dyke Marsh for its scenery and included a pulloff on the west side of the road for motorists to soak up marsh and river scenes, just north of what is today Morningside Lane. A legendary gentleman nicknamed “Cig” Dodson, essentially as a squatter, had lived, hunted, fished and operated a store and marina near the shoreline across from the pulloff. In the interest of fostering the memorial character directed by Congress, the National Park Service evicted Cig, but his legacy lives, said Virta, because the pulloff today is still known as Cigarette Turnaround.
During the 1930s, Bucknell University sold its Dyke Marsh land to the Smoot Sand and Gravel Corporation and for 40 years, Smoot dredged Dyke Marsh, dramatically reducing the size and destabilizing the wetland. Congress passed P.L. 86-41 in 1959 adding Dyke Marsh to the National Park Service system, but a compromise provision in the law allowed Smoot to continue removing sand and gravel until 1976. Congress was clear in its intent in preserving Dyke Marsh: “. . . so that fish and wildlife development and their preservation as wetland wildlife habitat shall be paramount.”
Now, after 50 years, the National Park Service is preparing a restoration plan to ensure the long-term viability of the rapidly eroding marsh, documented by a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study.
“Gone are the dredgers, highway builders, train men, land speculators, vice purveyors, farmers and native inhabitants to be replaced by nature lovers, park rangers and scientists, who share the mission of preserving this unique marsh environment,” Virta said in closing.