Clara Barton dedicated her life to mending the human body in times of conflict and natural disaster. It makes perfect kharmic sense that she spent the final 15 years at Glen Echo Park, a place dedicated to the nurturing of the human mind and spirit.
Glen Echo Park
Glen Echo Park was established in 1888, when two brothers with a winning design for an egg beater used their fame and fortune to mix up the local real estate market.
Edwin and Edward Baltzey purchased 516 acres along the Potomac River with the lofty goal of developing a neighborhood that was so much more than a place to live, offering the opportunity for residents to learn and grow right in their own backyard.
The brothers Baltzey envisioned their location would include a nationally recognized Chautauqua center, hosting the family-friendly summer camps that were made popular by Methodists in New York. Chautauquas offered the culture of the city speakers, musicians, entertainers and preachers in a rural setting.
By the late 19th century the movement was in full swing, and Glen Echo was chosen as the location of the 53rd Chautauqua Assembly in 1891. In order to accommodate the park’s summer visitors the Baltzeys went big on their design, building a 6,000-seat amphitheater perched over Minnehaha Creek with a speaker system fueled by water.
They broke ground on a railroad that would eventually reduce travel time from Washington, D.C., marketing their endeavor as “The Washington Rhine.” They even attracted Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, to live in the community. The brothers appeared to be unstoppable.
Despite a successful launch, their second year proved problematic due to poor weather and economic downturn. The Chautauqua soon ended, and the park evolved to include encampments, vaudeville acts and operas. In 1899, amusement rides arrived on the scene.
By 1903, Glen Echo had become a destination for trolley riders providing a full day of entertainment for the price of a train ride and by 1911, the park had been improved to include a dance pavilion, human roulette wheel and more. Over the years, Glen Echo became known as a state-of-the-art venue with a swimming pool to cool 3,000 bathers.
The 7,500-square-foot Spanish Ballroom was a centerpiece, offering big bands of the era. The park’s popularity peaked in the 1940s, and attendance dropped off severely from 1944-1950. Glen Echo closed in 1968 amid social unrest over civil rights; the harsh reality was that the park had failed to become integrated in a graceful manner.
The National Park Service took over Glen Echo in 1970, and a renaissance began that would transform it into a multi-interest cultural center. Today a partnership between the National Park Service, Montgomery County and the Town of Glen Echo manages its numerous activities.
The nine buildings that make up Glen Echo Historic District have been preserved and put to good use, renewing the creative spirit of the half-million people who visit every year.
The park is now best known for its social dances ranging from American swing to Contra and square dance held in the ballroom on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They’re open to the public, and the cost of admission includes a free lesson.
Resident artists specializing in pottery, calligraphy, glasswork, photography and music hold exhibitions, studio hours and classes for children and adults, and festivals and special events are offered several times each year.
Visitors can also explore nature, ride the 1921 Dentzel Carousel, take in a puppet show, enjoy the thriving artist community, romp in the playground and have a picnic at Glen Echo Park. The Baltzey brothers’ vision has been realized after all, and Glen Echo has come full circle.
Clara Barton National Historic Site
A tour of the nearby Clara Barton National Historic Site reveals much about the founder of the American Red Cross. In this 38-room home, Barton lived, worked, stored supplies and housed volunteers, often blurring the line between personal life and vocation to the point of nonexistence.
Best known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” Barton took care of wounded soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and corresponded with their families, enlisting them to send supplies to their loved ones.
When the Civil War ended, she launched a national campaign to identify missing soldiers, which took a significant toll on her spirit. She was ordered to take a trip to Europe by her doctor, but as we all know, “there’s no rest for the weary.”
Barton joined the relief effort to aid soldiers of the war between France and Prussia, and she witnessed the Red Cross in action. When she returned to America, her life had a renewed purpose, and she founded the American Red Cross to provide aid for the victims of natural disaster.
In 1891, the Baltzeys lured Barton to Glen Echo with the promise of free labor and a beautiful knoll of land on which to build her residence. Both creative and frugal, Barton designed a stunning home that exuded warmth and comfort yet remained practical with hidden nooks and crannies in which to stow bandages and other tools of the healing trade.
The house is restored to give a glimpse of her life there until her death at the age of 90 in 1912. A tour gives visitors a unique opportunity to get to know an outstanding American humanitarian who, with no formal nursing background, devoted her life to the cause of healing the wounded.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the Mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.