Sycamore Island

One Hundred Years of Enjoyment for Nature Lovers

-- by Craig Turner

Potomac Almanac, January 27, 1988

More than 100 years ago, a group of Washington men, mostly of German extraction, got together to buy an island. They ended up with two.

Legend has it that under the astute leadership of Matthew Ruppert, these men formed the German Beer and Rifle Club, and in the late 19th century they purchased Sycamore and Ruppert islands in the Potomac River for fishing and for weekend keg parties.

That's the legend. But historians differ on how much of it is true. The islands certainly exist, about halfway between the District line and the beltway's American Legion Bridge, Sycamore Island consists of five acres near the Maryland shore, just south of Glen Echo Park, and Ruppert Island is about the same size, just north of Sycamore.

As to the name of the club, the 15 original founders actually wanted to call it the "Sycamore Island Pleasure Club," but state officials would have no part of it.

"The Maryland state legislature would not accept the charter of the Sycamore Island Pleasure Club," says John Thomson, former president of the group and a member since 1961. "The men in Annapolis didn't like the implications of the name." In 1988, the group was officially incorporated under the name "Montgomery Sycamore Island Club."

"We think what got the island (club) started was that in the 1870s, steamboats were used for the first time on the canal," says Thomson. "The six-mile trip from Georgetown to the canal became easy, and people actually began making day trips out of Washington to the island."

And the club's membership was never exclusively German-American. Members were from numerous ethnic backgrounds, and still are. Today, membership is limited to 140 people, and the waiting list is about 2-3 years, Thomson says.

Shortly after the steamboats became commonplace on the river, Ruppert and 14 of his friends bought the island from the state of Maryland; the selling price has eluded historians.

The island's centerpiece is the clubhouse, a rickety old two-story wooden structure. The first floor consists of a three-room apartment inhabited by caretaker Peter Jones and his wife Holly, as well as a men's locker room and screened porch. On the second floor -- which boasts a spectacular view of the Potomac -- is a club room with two Franklin woodburning stoves, a kitchen and women's locker room.

"The clubhouse is there for people to use when they like," says Jones. "There are occasional group activities, mostly during the summer, but most of the time people just come and use the facilities when they please."

Another building serves as a canoe shed, housing about 60 canoes -- both club property and privately owned.

The club's early years are rumored to have been characterized by gambling and rowdy keg parties. But in 1914, a "revolution" changed the club rules: women were admitted as members, and alcohol was banned from the island -- a rule that still exists today.

Weekend Escape

The island was a favorite weekend retreat for club members who lived in the District and traveled to the island by steamboat. Days would be spent canoeing, stopping off at favorite spots to picnic or pick flowers, and club members would return to the island at nightfall to join other campers. They slept in tents on platforms.

The centennial issue of the Sycamore Islander recalls some favorite activities of club members. Don Conner writes of the romantic tradition of serenading women in canoes. This required a man to paddle from the stem while his beloved sat on pads in the center of the canoe. In the bow, perched atop a soap box, was a wind-up Victrola for playing music to enhance the setting.

A favorite destination was Lover's Lane, an outcropping of hanging vines on the Virginia shore that extended all the way to the water. From there, if the couple desired more privacy, they could hike a short distance up a small path to a spring nestled among the pines.

Numerous floods have nearly swept the island into the Chesapeake Bay. In 1936, the famed Johnstown Flood destroyed the clubhouse. Fortunately, the islanders hired architect John Loehler -- whose credits include the Washington Cathedral -- to rebuild the structure. Loehler designed the new clubhouse with an emphasis on strength; it is built of wood siding on a steel frame that is fastened atop brick foundations reinforced by poured concrete. No flood since then has budged the stalwart structure.

Receding floodwaters often leave mounds of wood on the banks of the island. One year, several industrious islanders collected the wood, dried it and built a treehouse with it. The treehouse was seldom used until one eccentric gentleman chose to make it his abode.

The man was John Newman, and a seaplane was his claim to fame. One night in 1947, police were notified that a seaplane had "gone down in the Potomac" in the vicinity of Glen Echo. The police, the Navy and the Glen Echo Fire Department were all dispatched to rescue the victim.

After several hours of searching the river, authorities discovered that the pilot, John Newman, had landed his "Republican American" seaplane on the river and anchored it to Sycamore Island.

Newman, a club member, explained to angry police that he had merely flown his plane down from Long Island to spend the weekend 40 feet above the ground in his favorite treehouse.

Even after liquor was banned from the island, parties remained a favorite pastime. The annual Sycamore Dance was always well attended (although the wind-up Victrolas were the only music source) and Christmas, Halloween and the Fourth of July were also favorites.

Present-day events

One hundred years after its founding, the club still exists. Members enjoy river sports such as canoeing, fishing, swimming, while others play horseshoes, volleyball, ping-pong, billiards and gather for nature walks, picnics, art classes --even weddings.

"The wedding in 1986 was a beautiful event," says Thomson. "It was a Japanese/American wedding. The bride dressed in traditional Japanese costume, and the groom in American costume. After the wedding, all 150 guests. watched while the bride and groom planted a tree near the center of the island to symbolize their unity."

Water events still dominate the island's activities schedule. In 1984, the "Fifth Annual Bob Andrews Living Memorial All Sycamore Island Downriver Canoe and Potomac River Appreciation Float" was held. The event honored Andrews, a longtime club member who had contributed much to the group. Participants floated downriver along a crazy course through small rapids while picking up bits of trash and debris along the way.

A more serious event for paddlers is the Potomac River Whitewater Race, which started in 1956. Organizers of this more dangerous race, which runs from just below Great Falls to Sycamore Island, invite only experienced canoeists. From this event has emerged the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington, DC, one of the largest whitewater paddling associations in the country.

Canoeing Commuters (sidebar article)

In 1961, when the CIA was moved to its present location in Langley, Va., employees in the Bethesda, Glen Echo and Northwest Washington found the commute frustrating. "The Beltway around Washington had not been finished, and everyone had to inch across crowded bridges in the District," wrote one CIA employee in the Sycamore Islander newsletter in 1985.

The challenge: to shorten the commute to Virginia. The answer: to canoe across the river.

The CIA canoe pool was formed that year by three CIA employees and has been operating ever since. One employee writes that on a typical morning he will bicycle three miles from his home in Bethesda to the landing, wait for the other canoe pool members, ferry across to the island, canoe across the river to Virginia (where he chains his canoe to a tree) and then hike a half mile to the office. On rainy mornings, canoe commuters drive to work; if a clear day turns rainy in the afternoon, they canoe home with ponchos.

Members say the summer commute is the worst because of heat and humidity, and winter, surprisingly, is one of the best times. The wind can create difficulties, and ice must be negotiated with care, but the canoeists say the enjoyment of the trip is more than worth the hassles.

The flora and fauna witnessed by the canoe commuters would make any car driver jealous. Plant pleasures include bluebells, honeysuckle, jack-in-the-pulpits and trout lilly, and canoeists have spotted wildlife such as ospreys, herons, deer, raccoons and beavers.

"It astonishes my elevator friends," said one pooler, "that beavers live right in metropolitan Washington, but they are numerous enough to cause a good deal of damage to trees along the bank. They are nocturnal, and it is not unusual to see one swimming home in the morning. On occasion, we have drifted downstream behind a beaver for a hundred yards."