A colleague of mine in railway preservation is updating a directory of preserved steam locomotives in North America. He asked about the status of the small locomotive that was installed in the District’s Kennedy Playground. When the playground opened in the 1960s, it contained a steam locomotive, several D.C. Transit streetcars, a tugboat and a plane. What is the history of the playground and where and when was the transportation “collection” removed?
— Wesley Paulson,
Ocean Pines, Md.
“It wasn’t like any other playground,” said Leon Jackson, 70, a longtime neighborhood resident whom Answer Man accosted last week at Seventh and O streets NW. There’s a modern recreation center there now — the descendant of the original playground — but old-timers still miss the old one.
“It was unique,” Jackson said. “Go to Maryland. Go to Virginia. You didn’t see it. The kids loved it — until the knuckleheads messed it up.”
In the early 1960s, the space — the entire block bounded by Sixth, Seventh, O and P streets NW — was a police impoundment lot for abandoned vehicles. It was an eyesore in an impoverished Shaw neighborhood that had few amenities for children.
Robert F. Kennedy, who then was attorney general, spurred an effort to build a playground there. Funding came from O. Roy Chalk, the flamboyant head of D.C. Transit, who chaired the nonprofit National Committee on Playgrounds for Young America. Chalk raised $150,000 to build the playground, which was designed by John Carl Warnecke, the architect who designed John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
There were 10,000 children at the park’s dedication, which took place, according to one reporter, on a “Kennedy kind of day, a life-loving blue sky day with an accent on youth.”
Children were offered free models of PT-109, the boat the park’s namesake had served on during World War II. One boy walked up to RFK and said, “I’m sorry about your brother.”
Robert — who would himself fall to an assassin four years later — put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Thank you, son.”
And what a playground! It had the traditional amenities — merry-go-round, swings, basketball court, a clubhouse — but its defining feature was surplus military equipment and transportation hardware. The Air Force donated two T-33 training jets, the Army a tank. A 64-foot tugboat — the Blue Horizon III — was towed through the city from the Navy Yard and deposited in the playground. There was a World War II-era landing craft. There were two streetcars. (Chalk had access to plenty. The last one had rolled three years earlier.) There was an 1876 Baldwin steam locomotive called the Jupiter that had spent its career hauling bananas and coffee in Guatemala.
The Marines built a fitness course. Earth was brought in to construct a massive hill, which became the base for a long sliding board and a soapbox-derby track.
There was nothing soft or rubberized or safe about the playground. You climbed on a tank. You swung off the wing of a jet.
Of course, adult knuckleheads had to mess things up. While O. Roy Chalk had raised and donated money to build the playground, no one thought about how to keep it running, to repair it, to keep it adequately staffed.
“It’s not my obligation,” Chalk said. “We never committed ourselves to the maintenance of the playground.”
Critics said some of the construction was subpar. The D.C. school system was miffed that the playground had been built on space designated for a new junior high school.
Without regular upkeep, things started to deteriorate. Worse, the park became a magnet for criminals, especially after dark. There were drug deals and assaults. By the 1970s, Kennedy Playground had become a place to keep your children from, not send them to.
One by one, the items that had made the park unique were removed: the tank, the planes, the streetcars, et cetera. Answer Man doesn’t know where most of it went — the scrap heap, presumably. But he does know the resting place of one. As Smithsonian curators prepared for the Bicentennial, they asked Chalk whether they could have the Baldwin steam train. He donated it in 1975, and it was moved from the Kennedy Playground.
The locomotive was painstakingly restored and installed in the Arts & Industries Building on the Mall. In 1999, it was moved to the National Museum of American History, where it is currently on display.
Visitors may look at it, but please don’t climb on it.
Send your questions about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.