From Carousels to Kayaking

From Carousels to Kayaking

Great Falls National Park celebrates its 100th birthday.

In 1906, a small amusement park was built in Great Falls near the Potomac River. Local residents would come out to enjoy its carousel and spend time relaxing outdoors. This weekend, that park will celebrate its 100th anniversary. There is no longer a carousel, and the park is much bigger than it was 100 years ago, but Great Falls National Park is still a well-loved local family retreat.

"This is the first time that we've ever done something tied to the park's original opening," said park ranger Jesse Reynolds.

On Saturday July 1, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., park visitors can take their pick of a wide variety of centennial activities. People may utilize special maps to take self-guided tours that will feature exhibit boards depicting the way the park looked in the early 1900s. There will also be an exhibit of the old trolley line that will include information on the history of the visitors centers.

The Great Falls Historians are working with the National Park Service to put on the historical exhibit, which will feature maps and photos of the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad. The photos will be on display throughout July.

"The purpose of this exhibit is to re-connect citizens of Northern Virginia with the past," said Karen Washburn, a Great Falls resident and local historian. "Many people do not realize that Northern Virginia grew around this railroad and many well known places today, including Arlington and McLean, which were once just stops along the line."

Reynolds said that in 1906, the only way to get to Great Falls Park was by taking the Great Falls trolley line.

"That trolley line was significant in helping to establish the community of McLean, and a number of other communities," said Reynolds.

REI, a recreational equipment company, will conduct an environmental awareness program for children, and local artists will have exhibits in the visitors center and at another location in the park.

"There will also be a blacksmithing demonstration, displays by Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, and displays by a man who does prehistoric tool-making," said Reynolds. "He'll be making arrowheads and other tools that date back hundreds of thousands of years."

The park has been through many changes since it first opened in 1906.

"People would come out here primarily for the carousel, and just to be able to have a retreat-like environment," said Reynolds. "There was a beautiful picnic area, a dance pavilion, and a dining hall."

The park evolved and the county acquired more acreage over the years. In 1966 the National Park Service took ownership the land, and like the county, continued to acquire more land. Today the park totals 800 acres.

Eventually all of the "amusement park era" buildings disappeared.

"They disappeared due to a variety of reasons, flooding being one of the final problems," said Reynolds.

In 1972, Hurricane Agnes took the last remaining remnant of the amusement park era — a more modern carousel that had been installed to replace the older model.

"From that point on the park has essentially been a natural reserve," said Reynolds.