There may be beech trees in Rock Creek Park, but that’s not what Beach Drive is named for. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Why is Beach Drive spelled the way it is, and not "Beech," as in a tree in the park? As far as I know, there are no beaches in Rock Creek Park, except perhaps P Street Beach, which came a lot later than the park itself. I have pondered this question for a long time, and I am hoping you can find the answer.

Virginia Jarrett, Washington

Lansing Beach may sound like Michigan's most unappealing vacation spot, but in fact it is the name of the man Beach Drive honors: Lansing Hoskins Beach.

We must never forget the role played by military officials in shaping Washington, especially those in the Army Corps of Engineers, who often oversaw such unglamorous work as sluicing away sewage, dredging harbors and constructing roads.

And so it was with Beach. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1860, Beach graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1882 near the top of his class. He was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers and worked on improving navigable streams in the Ohio Valley and served on a commission to determine the boundary between the United States and the Indian Territory.

Beach came to Washington in 1894 to work in the office of the engineer commissioner, a pre-home-rule position that oversaw the District's infrastructure and environmental programs, including sewage. He eventually was promoted to engineer commissioner.

It was Beach's work in Rock Creek Park that led to a road being named after him. The park had been established in 1890 by an act of Congress, but large parts of it were inaccessible to anyone other than hikers or especially brave horseback riders.

Congress had not appropriated any money for park improvements. But Beach — then a captain — had a plan. Tenants living in scattered houses in the park were required to pay rent to the government. Starting about 1897, Beach waived their rent and instead had them contribute labor in the form of brush-clearing.

Beach had other workers at his disposal. Every morning, two or three wagons would head into the park. The passengers were dressed in distinctive uniforms of horizontal black-and-white stripes. Wrote a reporter for the Evening Star: "They are the garb of the guilty, and their wearers are members of the chain gang, committed for various terms to the District workhouse."

At first, the chain gang repaired roads or opened old, abandoned roads. In 1899, prisoners began building a new road that hugged Rock Creek from Blagden Avenue to Military Road. Eventually, it would be "macadamized": covered with crushed stone from a quarry in Dickerson, Md. Under Beach, four miles of macadam road and three miles of dirt road were completed.

Some critics groused that these roads spoiled the wild quality of the park, but most appreciated that Beach had tried to follow the natural contours of the land. In 1901, the board that controlled Rock Creek Park voted to name the road "The Beach Driveway" in his honor.

Shortly thereafter, Beach finished his tour in Washington. His next tour took him to Detroit, followed by Louisiana and Baltimore, where he managed waterway improvements.

In 1920, Beach returned to the District to lead the Corps of Engineers. He seems to have maintained an interest in the park. In 1921, Beach recommended that Rock Creek Park get increased police patrols and be wired with an extensive lighting system. Darkness, he believed, was conducive to crime and other forms of immorality.

As one newspaper story put it: "Rock Creek Park, the nocturnal heaven of spooning couples, will no longer afford the protection from prying eyes that has made it their favorite."

Maj. Gen. Beach retired from the Army in 1924. He died in 1945 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1965, the Evening Star reported that "prominent Texans" were floating the idea that Beach Drive be renamed "Texas Drive." They were unhappy that President Lyndon B. Johnson's home state was honored with a street called Texas Avenue SE, far from the White House.

Unlike Beach Drive, that plan went nowhere.

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Twitter: @johnkelly

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