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Walking Greenbelt Lake with a City Park Ranger

A wonderful new event premiered last Saturday – a walking tour of Greenbelt Lake led by Greenbelt City Park Rangers. Attendees seemed unanimous in their praise of the event (especially our guides) and were glad to hear it’ll be repeated Saturday, June 19, at 10 a.m. (Meet at the stage.)

Our Ranger guides that day were Patrick Mullen, who told us he’s “in awe of this lake,” and Liz Taylor, who grew up in Greenbelt and spent lots of time at the lake as a kid. City Council Member Leta Mach attended the tour and also shared some interesting history with the group.

Greenbelt City Park Ranger Liz Thomas holds photo of Buddy Attick at the lake.

Greenbelt History

So did you know that Greenbelt was first named “Maryland Special Project #1.” Catchy, huh? Next it was called the Berwyn Project, so if you’re looking for photos of Greenbelt at its inception in the Library of Congress archives, look for “Berwyn Project,” in addition to “Greenbelt.”

Next, the new town was named Tugwell Town after the Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture at the time, Rex Tugwell, and that’s how workers on the project referred to it. Finally it was given the name Greenbelt, after the forests surrounding the town.

Greenbelt was projected to cost $5.5 million but in the end, cost $14 million.

There was talk during our tour of the highways through Greenbelt having been built to punish Greenbelt for its alleged socialism. In a follow-up email Patrick wrote, “In the original plan, Greenbelt was to be a ‘Garden City’, with the surrounding undeveloped land used as farms to provide food for the town. The B-W Parkway was built in 1950 through that undeveloped land…The Capital Beltway was completed in Maryland in 1964, also on lands originally intended for Greenbelt expansion. Many roads that were built in the area divided up the many areas of Greenbelt that we now know as Greenbelt East, Greenbelt West, and of course Greenbelt Station. Many have interpreted this as an attempt to ‘hedge in’ and/or divide the community of Greenbelt for fear of socialist/communist leanings.”


History of the Lake

And we learned how the lake happened to be built in the first place. Leta Mach told us that she learned from a supervisor on the project that the District Works Project administrator sent men to work at the site of what would become Greenbelt as soon as the project was authorized by Congress. However, there were no plans yet for any buildings! So the suggestion was made to create the lake in a swampy area in order to put the men (surely all men) to work until the building plans were created.

During construction of the lake


So 5,700+ people ultimately worked on the lake, all by hand in order to maximize the number of people employed on the project. Included in the original plan were facilities for swimming and boating – a dock, boathouse, changing stations and a man-made sand beach, most of which were cut for budgetary reasons. Later, a commercial developer partnered with the city to build a concession stand that also managed boat rentals.

(L) FDR is shown fish caught in the new lake. (R) A guard house and menacing-looking guard at the project.

Two docks were built for swimming, which was permitted until 1938 when health officials tested the water and discovered unhealthy levels of bacteria. Swimming has been banned ever since.

The concessions stand and boat rentals continued until the summer of 1996, when a young man tragically drowned in the lake.


Picnicing and boating at Greenbelt Lake.


Stocking the lake with trout.




So who IS Buddy Attick? We learned he wasn’t just a city worker, head of the Public Works Department for 23 years, but a beloved figure around town.

The lake has only been drained twice in its history, the second time just finishing up in 2020.


Biodiversity at the Lake

Fish: I lost track of all the types of fish we were told are in the lake, except that it’s restocked yearly with trout. I asked about a social media comment I’d seen recently that fish caught in Greenbelt Lake can’t be eaten safely, but the Rangers assured me that’s not true. Good to know!

The lake is about 14-15 feet deep.

Turtle in an open area of the lake.

Turtles: The first forebay, shown above, is a hot spot for turtles, many of them snapping, and they’re noticeably larger than the others. Patrick writes that “Once snapping turtles reach a certain size, they no longer have any natural predators and there’s one known turtle in the lake that’s so big and there are so many local stories about him that the Rangers suspect that he may be as old, if not older than Greenbelt itself. The average lifespan of a common eastern snapping turtle is 20-30 years but some turtles have been known to live for 100 years or more!”

The forebays are environmental engineering projects that solve silt and pollution problems in the lake.


Masses of turtles seen in the first forebay.


Green heron.

Birds/Ducks:  Some of the many birds commonly seen at the lake are mallards, egrits, herons, green herons, osprey, red-tailed hawk, seagulls, bluebirds, and orchard owls. It was suggested we find a video of green herons, so here’s one hunting and eating a fish. Notice it’s not really green.

Many have noted a recent decline in the mallard population at the lake and some have suggested that their eggs are being eaten by the snapping turtles, but Patrick refuted that accusation. He wrote, “The decline of Eastern Mallard duck populations is not unique to Greenbelt. There are many theories, including the loss and degradation of breeding and nonbreeding habitat, lower survival and fitness caused by winter food shortages, and the adverse effects of hybridization between wild birds and released game-farm mallards. That being said, we have reason to believe that our local population may be on the road to recovery. Recently, a family of Mallard ducks has been seen at the lake with as many as 12 ducklings.”

Other Critters: There are no poisonous snakes in Buddy Attick Park. But there ARE beavers, as we all know. We did learn that there’s a “beaver farm” in middle of lake where they store food. It looks like a pile of sticks..

Notes on Trees

Ranger Patrick Mullen with the “champion” white mulberry, now protected with fencing.

The Rangers have found four examples of Eastern Hornbeam trees in the park.

So many trees in Buddy Attick Park have been threatened by munching beavers that Scouts and other volunteer groups have installed cages around the base of the trees, to keep them away.

Scouts and other volunteers work to remove both English ivy and poison ivy scrambling up trees. Here’s Patrick pointing to a vigorous patch of poison ivy.

Remember, you too can take this tour! Saturday, June 19th at 10 a.m., join the Rangers at the stage at Buddy Attick Park for the one-hour tour. You’ll learn a lot more than I was able to jot down.
Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

  1. Sieglinde Talbott Peterson
    | Reply

    Wonderful article. Thank you so much!

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