Theodore Roosevelt Island

Written by Dinah Rokach on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

History records, but few remember, the endorsement by Theodore Roosevelt of a Jewish homeland in Zion. In a list of goals for the peace settlement at the conclusion of World War I — anticipating the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire — former President Theodore Roosevelt included: “Palestine made a Jewish State.” Roosevelt wrote in 1918, a few months before his death, “It seems to me that it is entirely proper to start a Zionist State around Jerusalem.” As a teenager, he had accompanied his parents in their travels across the Ottoman Empire in 1872-73. They visited the Western Wall, as is noted in his boyhood diary.


Indeed, on many occasions, Teddy Roosevelt showed his friendship with the Jewish people.

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt appointed the first Jew to serve in the United States Cabinet. He chose Oscar Straus as Secretary of Commerce and Labor (it was one department then). His brothers, Isidor and Nathan Straus, owned the New York City department stores, Macy’s and Abraham & Straus.

In response to the pogroms, which started in Kishinev on the last day of Pesach in 1903 and took the lives of 49 Jews, President Roosevelt wrote a strenuous, heartfelt protest. It was publicized internationally after Russia refused to accept it through diplomatic channels. He wrote to Czar Nicholas II of Russia, “I need not dwell upon a fact so patent as the widespread indignation with which the American people heard of the dreadful outrages upon the Jews…It is natural that while the whole civilized world should express such a feeling, it should yet be most intense and most widespread in the United States; for of all the great powers I think I may say that the United States is that country in which, from the beginning of its national career, most has been done in the way of acknowledging the debt due to the Jewish race and of endeavoring to do justice to those American citizens who are of Jewish ancestry and faith.”

Teddy Roosevelt donated a portion of the money he was awarded for the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Jewish Welfare Board. That organization was formed to aid Jewish soldiers serving in the US military.

In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of an incident in New York City in 1895. “While I was police commissioner, an anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin…came over to New York to preach a crusade against the Jews. Many of the New York Jews were much excited and asked me to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection. This, I told them, was impossible; and if possible would have been undesirable because it would have made him a martyr. The proper thing to do was to make him ridiculous. Accordingly I detailed for his protection a Jewish sergeant and a score or two of Jewish policemen. He made his harangue against the Jews under the active protection of some forty policemen, every one of them a Jew! It was the most effective possible answer.” Roosevelt praised “the bravery of the Jews who have served under me in my regiment [referring to the Rough Riders of 1898] and on the police force of New York City, who have done their duty splendidly.”

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Potomac River

Washington DC


Admission is free. Open year-round from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

On the island are the National Memorial statue and plaza and three marked trails: Swamp Trail, Upland Trail, and Woods Trail.

Getting there:

By car: accessible from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, after the Memorial Bridge follow the sign to turn right into the parking lot. There is free parking in the designated spaces but those parking on the grass may be ticketed. There are 90 parking spots but they do fill up quickly on spring and summer Sundays. Plan accordingly and arrive early. Cross the footbridge to the island.

By Metrorail: Blue, orange, or silver lines to Rosslyn station. The walk is 10 minutes from the Metro station to the parking lot side of the footbridge. Take North Moore Street toward the Key Bridge, turn right on US 29 North, left on North Lynn Street, right onto Custis Trail, continue onto Mount Vernon Trail, which leads to the parking lot and the footbridge. (Check for service advisories before heading out.)

By bike: Mount Vernon Trail north end. Bicycles are not permitted on the island but bike racks are provided near the footbridge.

Think of the great presidents whose heads are carved on Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. To baseball fans, they are the Racing Presidents who will shortly round the bases this season at Nationals Park. Now bring to mind their memorials in our capital city: The Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials — but where is the edifice by which Teddy Roosevelt is remembered? The answer: there is no marble building nor obelisk erected in his honor.

Of greater significance, Teddy Roosevelt is honored with an island in the Potomac River that bears his name. Situated there is a memorial plaza that includes a full-length statue. How appropriate! The first President Roosevelt was an outdoorsman and conservationist. He greatly expanded the federal government’s role in the preservation of our nation’s natural resources by setting aside wilderness areas for future generations. Roosevelt Island is a park and naturalist’s dream, upon which is located a memorial to his life. Although the island itself is located in Washington, D.C., the only access to it is from Virginia via a footbridge over the Potomac.

Roosevelt Island is 88.5 acres. It was purchased in 1932 for the purpose of becoming a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt. Frederick Law Omstead Jr. worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps to recreate, in this neglected island, a mature, overgrown woodland. They succeeded admirably. Roosevelt Island has elements of marsh, swamp, and forest habitats. Slightly fewer than 200 species of birds have been observed on the island. It is home to a diverse population of reptiles, amphibians, natural plants, over 200 varieties of wildflowers, and over 50 species of trees.

The memorial was dedicated in 1967. It consists of two large fountains, fifteen quotations engraved on four 21-foot granite tablets, and a 17-foot high statue. The memorial is near the center of the island in the western section. Follow the short one-third mile Woods Trail off the footbridge to get there. It traverses the heart of the island. Sit down, relax, and enjoy the snack you’ve brought along. Read the inscriptions on the tablets that are categorized under the subjects: nature, youth, manhood, and the state. You’ll discover these worthy sentiments: “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.” “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Take the 1.5-mile Swamp Trail, which traverses the outer loop of the island and features a river view across the Potomac to the Georgetown Waterfront. The terrain is flat and easy to cover. It has both boardwalk and gravel sections that pass through swampy woods and cattail marsh. The Upland Trail through the forest is three-quarters of a mile long. It loops around the former site of the mansion that was built in 1796 by John Mason. The island itself was once called Mason Island. John Mason inherited the island from his father, George Mason, the patriot and principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, a document which influenced the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.

Before visiting, families with children may want to download the Junior Ranger booklet from the National Park Service Theodore Roosevelt Island website. Mail back the completed booklet to receive a Junior Ranger badge.

A map of park trails, the Roosevelt memorial plaza, and location of restrooms is available on the website as well. Restrooms are located at the far east side of the island where all three trails converge. Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trails. The footbridge that crosses the Potomac is about one-half mile long. If you haven’t had a chance to look at the map of the island beforehand, after crossing the bridge, head straight to the marker identifying the trails to better plan your visit.

There are no picnic tables on the island but there are benches at the memorial plaza and more benches along the boardwalk section of the Swamp Trail. The boardwalk section is a great place to spot birds.

Surprise your loved ones. Say you’re taking them to an uninhabited island. Not a desert island, but a nature lover’s delight of pristine forest woodlands surrounded by water. It’s true, no one lives on Roosevelt Island; only pedestrians are allowed. And you don’t need reservations or a boat to get there.

Embark on your outing to Roosevelt Island full of the anticipation that accompanies the discovery of a beautiful place that takes you back in time. You’ll be enchanted by your surroundings and gain a new appreciation of the 26th President of the United States.