Road Trip Wrap-up and the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway

If you’ve been following along on our virtual road trip of our nontextual holdings, you’ve journeyed with us from our home base in Maryland, south to Richmond, Virginia and on to North Carolina. You joined us in Charleston, Memphis, New Orleans, and then farther west to Texas. We went to Albuquerque and Las Vegas, and traveled through the California desert. We went north through California, and visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Yosemite National Park before hitting the Olympic Peninsula and Seattle. We crossed the Continental Divide and spent time in Badlands National Park. We drove across the Great Plains and took a detour in Minnesota. Our last stops before heading home were Chicago and Pittsburgh

All along the way, we explored the film, photographs, and cartographic records in our holdings. Summer vacation is over and we’re back home, but we spent the long weekend travelling down the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Mt. Vernon, our first president’s home and a destination that was once considered the essential patriotic pilgrimage.

Original Caption: President Washington’s great vision is manifest in Mount Vernon. Originally one-and-a-half stories, he raised the structure another story and added two wings. He lived here more than 45 years. (Local Identifier: 406-NSB-046-Picture_014)

Today, with additions that stretch to the Maryland border, the George Washington Memorial Parkway is a primary commuting artery for the D.C. metro area. When it was opened in 1932, however, the daily commute didn’t exist because the suburbs had yet to be developed. The road was intended to bring tourists to historical sites related to the life of George Washington and provide views of the Washington Monument and Capitol building. 

Still from Historic Scenes Along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway (Local Identifier: 33.463). This sketch shows the route of the road, and notes historic sites related to the life of President George Washington. Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is marked with a star.

Before Washington, D.C. was home to the array of Smithsonian museums, the Lincoln Memorial, or our own National Archives building, the place to go to experience our country’s history was George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Tourists had arrived even while the president was still living, but Mount Vernon welcomed visitors in earnest after the house and grounds were purchased and restored by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858. Businessmen in Alexandria, Virginia, first proposed the idea of a road built just so that citizens could travel from the nation’s capital to Mount Vernon in the 1880s. It took six hours for the first automobile to make a round trip from Washington, D.C. to Mount Vernon in 1904, while most travelers took the trolley or a boat down the Potomac River.

RG79-NPS 850-85086
Plan for Development of Mount Vernon Memorial Highway (Local Identifier: NPS 850-85086). Click to open in a new window.

Those who wanted a special road to Mount Vernon finally triumphed with the renewed interest in honoring George Washington for the bicentennial of his birth in 1932. Historic Scenes Along the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, produced by the Bureau of Public Roads, showed how travelers could enjoy the first section of what is now the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Today there are a number of gorgeous parks and a paved trail that follows the Potomac. On a weekend, one can see people out enjoying the natural beauty of the region.

Here at the National Archives’ Special Media Division, we hope you have had a happy and healthy summer. Please continue to follow along as we share the non-textual holdings of the National Archives!

General information about the history of the George Washington Parkway came from a very detailed National Park Service pamphlet, which is available here