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The Evolution of Theodore Roosevelt Island

Sep 10, 2010

Over the summer, the Theodore Roosevelt Center had four remote interns who worked primarily on cataloging parts of the collection. At the end of the summer, I asked them to write a blog entry about their experience. This is the second in the series.

I have become attached to Theodore Roosevelt Island. The island, located on the Potomac River between Washington D.C. and Virginia, is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial. This 88-acre island, accessible by footbridge, not only bears a memorial plaza and statue to the 26th President but the island itself is a memorial to the man who created our nation’s National Park System. With towering trees and winding paths, the island was developed to honor Theodore Roosevelt’s devotion to the outdoors and as an escape from the bustle of Washington.

Image: View of Theodore Roosevelt Island from the north. Arlington Memorial Bridge can be seen in the background. Taken August 14, 1950. From Theodore Roosevelt Island, National Parks Service  

I was given a unique opportunity upon being assigned the Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial collection for my internship with the Theodore Roosevelt Center. In the first place, unlike my fellow interns who are handling parts of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential papers from the Library of Congress, I am working on a collection consisting almost entirely of documents generated after his death. Secondly, the collection is small. Consisting of roughly 330 documents, pulled together from various departments within the National Park Service and the National Archives and Records Administration by park rangers on Theodore Roosevelt Island, the collection details both the history of the island itself and its development as a national memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. Where the other interns worked on a section of Roosevelt’s presidency, I worked on a separate and complete collection where I was able to explore and learn about an aspect of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy from beginning to end. In addition to the manageable number of documents and their comprehensive content, when I received the collection I discovered it was arranged almost entirely in chronological order. As I made my way through the documents, cataloging each letter, photograph, report, drawing and newspaper article, I felt as though I was being taken on a journey.

The numerous document formats served to paint a clear picture in my head of the island and the memorial. The numerous descriptions and reports of the island, the correspondence with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted where every detail of his planting plan is discussed, and the drawings he supplied of his vision, the numerous proposed designs for a statue commemorating the president, and all the photographs serve to illustrate the island. Beyond the physical appearance, the documents prove that the island is important beyond its function as a memorial. They reveal its long and august history as a sanctuary for everyone from Native Americans, to freedmen during the Civil War, to politicians and tourists escaping the crush of the capital long before its dedication to Theodore Roosevelt.

Image: Theodore Roosevelt Memorial statue as seen from above. Unknown date. From Theodore Roosevelt Island, National Parks Service

Reading through each document, I felt as though I had seen the island in each of its incarnations and I supported its next chapter as a memorial where it could continue to be a haven. Consciously I knew the state of the island in present day. I had looked at an aerial view through Google maps. I read about the park on the National Park web site. I even talked to a good friend of mine in D.C. who uses the park for its intended purpose as an Arcadian sanctuary. However, none of these activities prepared me for the devastation I felt upon cataloging documents pertaining to the building of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, or about airplanes flying directly over the island as they use the Potomac River as a landing guide for Reagan Airport. I felt like the sanctity of the island had been shattered. I had become attached.

Rationally I understand that any place in a bustling metropolis will have car noise and planes overhead. The nature of the collection, with its variety of documents and multiple sources, has allowed for this ideal multifaceted image to be created that one yearns to experience. Clearly this indicates that the collection and the island fulfill their intention of honoring the President and his impact on America. Furthermore, the treat with Theodore Roosevelt Island is that it appears to retain its forest solidarity in its practical application even while the busy world encroaches on its space. A tired tourist or plagued politician can still find rest and relaxation within its trees and I fully intend to test this theory when I visit Washington in the fall.

Lauren Miller is a recent graduate from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston, Massachusetts. She previously worked at Tufts University in Digital Collections and Archives. Lauren lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband.

Posted by Lauren Miller on Sep 10, 2010 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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