The History of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club on Plummers Island

Late in the autumn of 1899, Charles L. Pollard, while visiting Philadelphia, learned the story of a naturalists’ camp (Catoxen Cabin), which had been established in May of that year near Medford, New Jersey. He was thoroughly impressed with the value to the working biologist of such a base of operations, and on his return to Washington, D.C., outlined to several of his friends a scheme for a similar camp in the vicinity of Washington. On January 10, 1900, these friends assembled at Mr. Pollard’s home, at 1854 Fifth Street in Washington, where he formally proposed the formation of a club for the study of the biology of the Washington area. Those present heartily approved the plan. An organization was effected under the name Washington Biologists’ Field Club, and committees were appointed to draft articles of organization and to make recommendations on site and equipment.

At a second meeting, held January 17, the articles of organization were adopted; a Standing Committee consisting of Charles Pollard, Chairman, Adrian Pieters, William Palmer, Orator Cook, and William Hay was elected; and Edgar Brown was elected secretary-treasurer. The men who attended these first two meetings (and who subsequently purchased stock in the organization) were therefore the Founders of the Club. Besides those already named, the list includes Guy Collins, William Maxon, Edward Morris, and William Pollock.

At this second meeting the Committee on Site reported on the merits of the several localities suggested by the members, and it was decided to locate in the neighborhood of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. A few days later the members met again, and the chairman of the standing committee stated that, in company with William Palmer, he had visited Upper Marlboro and had found a small cottage upon the Bonaparte property exactly suited to the needs of the Club. The members decided to rent the house and furnish it. Sale of shares of stock of a value of $5 each produced a sum sufficient to pay a year’s rental and to buy the necessary furniture and utensils. The outfit included a small stove, three plain tables, six chairs, six cots, a large hanging lamp, two lanterns, a skillet, an ax, tin plates and cups, and a set of knives, forks, and spoons. On March 1, 1900, the Club took formal possession of the Upper Marlboro house and it was declared open on March 31.

The Club spent a year and a half at this house; hardly a week passing without several members making the trip from Washington. However, the journey was too difficult to render the expeditions thoroughly enjoyable, and the Club accordingly decided to look for a more accessible location. At last an ideal one was found in Plummers Island, situated in the Potomac River near the Maryland shore nine miles northwest of the White House. The island was brought to the attention of the Club by LeRoy Topping, an ardent outdoor enthusiast who had spent much time on the river and had collected on the island before Club members saw it. This site was adopted April 9, 1901.

Since there was no building upon the island, someone proposed the erection of a woods camp, the work to be done by members and expenses thus kept within moderate bounds. It was estimated that for about $200 a cabin could be built that would answer every purpose. Two of the members who had experience at building, William Beattie and William Palmer, were appointed to draw plans, to negotiate for building materials, and to call on others for assistance. In view of the contemplated building operations and probable growth of the Club, it was thought best to reorganize and incorporate under the laws of the District of Columbia. The deed of incorporation was recorded May 23, 1901.

A temporary organization of the newly incorporated society was effected on June 1, 1901. At a meeting of the full membership two days later, revised bylaws were adopted, William. Hay was elected president, and Edward Morris secretary-treasurer. Plummers Island was leased June 8, 1901, for a period of five years at an annual rental of $30, and building operations were begun. The funds necessary for the erection of the cabin were obtained in part by an issue of 25 promissory notes of the value of $5 each, bearing interest at the rate of two percent per annum. This was authorized at a meeting of the Board of Managers on June 4, 1901. The issue was open to members only.


It is not necessary to describe in detail the construction of the cabin, the difficulties experienced in conveying the material to the bank of the River, and the seemingly interminable labor of transporting it from there by wire trolley to the highest point on the Island, a rocky crest more than 60 feet above the water, which had been chosen as a building site. All set to work with a will, and the cabin gradually arose. The structure was begun late in the spring, and the first snows of winter had fallen before the great stone chimney was completed. The furnishings of the Marlboro house were moved into the new quarters, and the house warming was held on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1901. Five members and eleven guests were present on this occasion.

The Clubhouse, as originally constructed, was a one-story cabin, containing one large room, 14 by 28 feet, with a 6-by-9-foot kitchen in a lean-to addition at the rear. A broad porch extended the full length of the cabin on the side facing the River. At one end of the large room was a fine open fireplace, wide enough to receive 4-foot logs and high enough to throw out a great deal of heat. At the opposite end were lockers for the use of members. Heavy curtains could be drawn across the room near that end, separating it from the main living room.

A high, narrow window was on each side of the front entrance on the wall facing the porch and River. A wide, low window was on the wall facing down River, and a similar window was near the rear door looking out over a long picnic table. At frequent intervals along the walls were shelves to accommodate the books and other common property of the Club. Originally there was a plentiful supply of cots and bedding. The kitchen contained the wood-burning cook stove, culinary utensils, table service, and staple food supplies. The cabin was covered on the outside with unpainted cypress shingles laid upon a solid sheathing of lumber and was lined on the inside with heavy building paper.

The cost of the original building was slightly over the estimated $200, of which sum there was on hand at the beginning only $75. From the regular dues and the entrance fees of new members— and without special assessments—all the notes were redeemed by August 1, 1903. The name Winnemana Lodge was adopted as the official designation for the Clubhouse at the annual meeting of 1906. Winnemana means “beautiful island.” The term was exhumed from a local Indian language by Henry W. Henshaw.


From the moment that Plummers Island was selected as the home of the Club, purchase of the site was contemplated. On June 3, 1901, at the first meeting after incorporation, the Club authorized the rental or purchase of the Island. It was found that rental only was possible at the time. Funds for surveying and purchasing the Island were voted in 1902. Early in 1903, it was announced that the owner was unwilling to sell at a reasonable figure, and action was taken looking toward the selection of a suitable site elsewhere. This investigation continued for more than two years. Meanwhile the hope of ultimately purchasing the Island was not abandoned. The validity of the title to the land was investigated in 1904 with apparently satisfactory results. Negotiations were then pressed with more vigor, and a promise was obtained that sale would be discussed in September 1905. Before this time arrived, death caused a change in ownership of the property and threw it into litigation.

Although the Club was ready to act at any time, the committee on purchase having at its disposal money for the actual buying of the Island, as well as for legal expenses, no further progress was made until December 1906. The new owner agreed to sell provided it was recommended by his counsel. To deal effectively with the situation the Club also retained a legal adviser, who scrutinized closely all deeds and transfers bearing on the case. The original grant of the territory adjacent to the Island was made in 1684, the estate being called Carderrock. Neither in this nor any subsequent deed was an island mentioned, the southern boundary of the tract being the shore of the River. Furthermore, written and printed evidence seemed to prove that the Island had been separate from the mainland since time immemorial.


It was evident that the claimant’s title to the Island was uncertain, to say the least. The Club’s attorney, therefore, announced the intention of acquiring the Island by patent, at the same time signifying the Club’s willingness to buy the claimant’s quit-claim. Charles Pollard applied to the State Land Commissioner for a patent to Plummers Island on June 7, 1906. A warrant for survey was issued the next day, but owing to delay, principally on account of high water, the survey was not made until March 23, 1907. The report of the county surveyor was submitted on April 29. Under the law, a patent is issued six months after the receipt of this report, provided no caveat is filed. A short time before the expiration of this period, a caveat imperfect in form was filed. It was not accepted by the commissioner, but a delay of 30 days was granted so that a perfect one could be presented if desired. The Club’s attorney then obtained promise from the claimant’s attorney that formal caveat would not be filed pending negotiations for purchase of a quit-claim. A price was set, and the board of managers of the Club authorized the purchase of about 10 acres on the mainland in addition to the quit-claim to the Island. This action was approved at a meeting of the whole Club on December 3, 1907. At this meeting the Club voted to issue gold bonds of a total value of $1,800 with face value of $10 each and interest at the rate of two percent per annum, to mature in 20 years. They were secured by first mortgage on the Club property and were sold to Club members only. It was voted to keep $600 of the issue in the treasury subject to future action by the Club. Trustees were appointed to acquire Mr. Pollard’s patent rights and proper title to the mainland tract and to arrange for the mortgage.

At a special meeting, January 15, 1908, the Club authorized the purchase of 25 acres on the mainland in addition to the 10 already bargained for, and the bonds reserved at the December meeting were released for sale to the Club. The actual purchase was concluded soon thereafter, and a quit-claim to the Island and deed to the mainland property were received March 4, 1908. The deeds were recorded a few days afterward, thus removing every obstacle to the issuance of patent to the Island. As Mr. Pollard had assigned his rights to the Club, the patent was issued by the State Land Commissioner on March 21, 1908, in the name of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club. Title to the 12 acre island was now complete. Thus, the plans and efforts of seven years were consummated.

In the early 1920s, trespass on Club property by a squatter on land east of Rock Run led ultimately to the purchase of a tract of 3.5 acres that extends from Rock Run to Lock 10 and from the canal to the River.

In 1921, this squatter, Leland Barton, was trespassing regularly on the Club’s mainland property and was saying that he had a patent on various rocks in the River east of Plummers Island. The next year he dammed the mouth of Rock Run, presumably to cause further alluvium to be added to the easternmost shoreline of the mainland property, which he surveyed and claimed as an accretion to his supposed patent.

The solution to this problem seemed to be in the Club’s acquiring the tract on which Barton lived, and so early in 1922 an attorney, Edward Stafford, began work on the case. A year passed before the owner was found and another year before the Club received the deed to the property, for which it paid $200. The deed was recorded July 3, 1924. However, that was not the end of the case, for it was not until August 9, 1927, that Barton was served a writ of eviction.

On November 13, 1927, a $1,500 bond issue (20 years at five percent) was authorized to cover the cost of the Barton tract and legal fees connected with its purchase and Barton’s eviction. These bonds were redeemed in 1948.

Thus, in addition to Plummers Island, the Club then owned 38.5 acres on the mainland, a tract that overlapped the Island at both ends that preserved the Club’s right-of-way and insured comparative privacy. This mainland property is bounded on the north by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and on the south by the Potomac River. The western boundary ran from the River just west of Plummers Island in a roughly north-northeast direction to Lock 12, the eastern boundary from Lock 10 south to the River. Corners along this line were marked by stones bearing the initials W.B.F.C. Fences were erected on the west, north, and east boundaries in the years 1909 to 1911, with partial replacement in 1927. The fence on the north side did not strictly follow the property line, which at one angle approached within three feet of the edge of the canal.

After several years of rumor and speculation about what to do in such an eventuality, the Club finally was advised that on June 24, 1958, the United States Government, by condemnation proceedings, had taken possession of its Plummers Island property. The taking of these tracts by the Government was in accordance with the Capper Cramton Act, which called for acquisition of both shores of the Potomac River and its islands for extension of the George Washington Memorial Highway to Great Falls.

Added to this blow came the information that the States of Maryland and Virginia had chosen a site 200 feet upstream from the west end of Plummers Island for a high bridge across the Potomac connecting the proposed new Capital Beltway (Interstate Route 495) around Washington, D.C.

Having been warned some time in advance that both of these acts were impending, the Club appointed a committee to investigate possibilities of obtaining a site for its clubhouse and activities elsewhere in the Washington area. These investigations failed to turn up a site that was as desirable for the Club’s purposes, from the standpoint of accessibility and natural history interest, as Plummers Island. Therefore it was decided by the board of managers at a special meeting on July 10, 1958, to work out an agreement with the National Park Service for the Club to continue its exclusive use of the 12-acre island portion of the property in return for waiver of rights of financial compensation for this parcel of its condemned land, and at the same time to try through legal channels to obtain as much compensation as possible for the 38.5 acre mainland portion. The agreement was worked out and signed by both parties on July 24, 1959. This document, with court order to accomplish its purpose, is recorded among the land records of Montgomery County, Maryland. The agreement with its stipulations is presented as part of this book.

On March 15, 1961, through its attorneys, the firm of Lambert & Northrop, the Club received final payment on a total of $49,500 awarded in out-of-court action by the U.S. Department of Justice for the mainland area. These funds were deposited to the account of the Washington Biologists’ Field Club, and immediately a committee was appointed to consider the problem of their investment. Subsequently it was decided to use the income from the Club’s invested funds to support research and publication on the biology of Plummers Island and environs.


Some of the business activities of the Club are not without historical interest. The board of managers is the mainspring of the Club’s actions. Little is known of the standing committee and its meetings during the years 1900 and 1901. The board, as now understood, was first elected on June 3, 1901, and held its first meeting the next day. Two regular meetings are held each year, in March and October. In the first 12 years special meetings brought the total to an average of five a year, but in recent years few special meetings have been needed. A business meeting of the entire membership is held each April. In recent years the administrators of the National Zoological Park have been the Club’s hosts at each of these annual meetings.

The house and grounds committee was established by the board of managers on December 10, 1901. A custodian of photographs was appointed in 1903, this position metamorphosed later into the committee on books and photographs.

Bylaws for the Club were adopted at the first regular meeting after incorporation in 1901. They have been amended several times, most recently in 1995. The bylaws now in force are printed in this book. Active membership, which is restricted to greater Washington, D.C. residents, was limited to 50 members for many years and all members were male. In 1996, the active membership was increased to 60 members with the main reason to recruit women and 10 women were elected as members. For many years, the dues were $5 a year, but in 1995 they were raised to $20 per year to adequately cover the cost of food for the two annual outings and the annual meeting. In 2006, the dues were increased to $25 per year.

The social highlights of the year are the Club’s spring field meeting with a shad bake, held annually at the Island since 1904, and the fall field meeting with an oyster roast, held annually since 1911. They usually are attended by more than half of the active members and by five or more guests. The meetings are now held on the Saturday closest to the first day of May and November, respectively.

The Club has entertained at Plummers Island groups of members of various scientific societies, among them the American Ornithologists’ Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Congress of Zoologists, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, and the Botanical and Biological Societies of Washington. The Island also has been the scene of many special occasions, such as the dinner in honor of the 75th birthday of Jonathan Hall Sage on April 20, 1922. Many distinguished guests, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Ambassador Bryce, Dr. Frank M. Chapman, Ernest Thompson Seton, William T. Hornaday, Senator Fred C. Walcott, Justice William O. Douglas, Congressman Gilbert Gude, and the Hon. William D. Hassett, have enjoyed the Club’s hospitality.

Since the beginning the Club has maintained a register in which the names of members and guests, the dates of their visits, and notes of interest have been recorded. The first entry for the Upper Marlboro house was for March 31, 1900. Charles Pollard, William Hay, and William Maxon were present, with Wilfred Osgood as guest. Edward Morris was the first to pass a night in the house. The notes in this register vary from accounts of gardening operations to poetry. The last entry for Upper Marlboro is June 30, 1901, and the first for Plummers Island, November 28, 1901. The later registers contain frequent biological or meteorological notes, some of unusual interest. In some years the cabin has been occupied for part of the day on more than two-thirds of the days, registrations of members and guests have exceeded 1,000, and overnight registrations have exceeded 300.

Since 1962, weekly inspection tours of the Island property have been conducted regularly by members in an effort to reduce vandalism, or at least to discover it in a timelier manner so that repairs can be made more promptly. The tours are made on a rotational basis among the resident members, so that it is seldom that a member is assigned this duty more than once a year.

The Club celebrated the centennial of its founding in January 1900, and the housewarming of the cabin on Plummers Island in November 1901. The membership at the 1988 and 1989 annual meetings agreed that a major celebration should mark this occasion, and the board of managers directed that a committee should be appointed to plan for it. One thing that was generally agreed upon is that the centennial should be marked by publication of a new and probably expanded edition of “The Members and History” book, published in 1984, and the supplement of 1993. All members were invited to share their ideas with the president who initially chaired the planning committee. A committee was formed and was chaired by Al Manville. Numerous activities were discussed, but the two major ones that evolved from the committee deliberations were to have a major dinner celebration at the Cosmos Club and to produce a book on the club history and membership. The dinner was held on February 15, 2000, and there was large attendance of Club members. Guest speaker was Chris Madson, Editor of Wyoming Wildlife Magazine. Although the book project was greatly delayed, this book is also a product of the wishes of the centennial committee.

In 1991, President Dick Banks appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Vice President Don Wilson to investigate potential ways of increasing the taxonomic breadth of our knowledge of the biodiversity of Plummers Island and the nearby mainland. While the vertebrates, plants, and a select few insect groups had been studied intensively on the Island, many invertebrate taxa remained totally unknown. The committee also was charged with developing a strategy to disseminate that information to the biological community at large. The committee initially compiled a list of literature in which any aspect of the biota of Plummers Island was treated. Currently plans are being developed to fill gaps in our knowledge through the club’s research grants program.

As part of the Club’s centennial anniversary in 2000, it was decided to publish a book-length volume summarizing our knowledge of the biota of the site. Subsequently it was decided to divide this treatment into three distinct publications: flora, invertebrates, and vertebrates. A contemporary review of the flora was published recently by Stan Shetler and collaborators, and a volume including numerous contributions on the invertebrate fauna is nearing completion.

The sound construction of the cabin enabled it to withstand the elements for more than 60 years with only slight repairs. However, in the mid-1960s the cabin suffered frequent and continued vandalism with windows and doors broken and furniture destroyed. The Club authorized the addition of shutters to the windows, which could be bolted from inside, and heavier doors and locks. Paul Spangler undertook this renovation in 1968 with a hired carpenter, and the opportunity was taken to replace the cabin roof and to enlarge the cramped kitchen and add windows to it. Regrettably, vandalism and break-ins continued, and successive house and grounds committees had to undertake frequent repairs.

In an effort to maintain the cabin in good repair several projects were conducted in the 1990s by members or by persons under contract from the Club. The fireplace was completely re-bricked on the inside hearth and mouth of the chimney. The original wooden mantle was reinstalled with new brick supports. The stone on the outside of the chimney was repaired with new mortar where necessary. A new stainless steel zero-tolerance stovepipe was installed on the stove in the kitchen. The fireplace and stove repairs greatly decreased the chance of accidental fire.

New cross beams were installed inside the cabin to improve the strength of the roof and the capacity for storage of portable picnic tables. Repairs to the floor, floor supports, porch roof, windows, and walls were made as needed. Shingles were replaced where necessary, and all wood on interior and exterior, including picnic tables, was stained with appropriately colored wood preservative.

Permanent benches were installed outside for the long, permanent picnic table to replace the chairs and portable benches that were burned by uninvited “guests” that inhabited the cabin on numerous occasions. Two shorter permanent tables and benches also were installed to replace the portable picnic tables. At the suggestion of President Dick Banks, a permanent seat was installed at the head of the table so the president no longer had to sit on a cut log which had become an uncomfortable tradition.

A new sign (a replica of the old one) was installed on posts at the downstream end of the Island near the rock crossing to replace the old one nailed to a tree. Floodwaters soon revealed to the embarrassment of the installer that the sign should have been placed parallel to the River instead of perpendicular and changes were made quickly. Three new signs were installed on the three doors. Repairs to the outside fireplace were made when necessary, and new grills for shad and oysters were made by Al Gardner.

A new shingle roof was installed after old shingles were removed and rotten boards replaced. All new shingles were carried in by the members in one day, whereas, the old shingles were piled near the cabin and slowly were removed by members over a several month period. The cabin has been sinking slowly and a large gap between the chimney and the main cabin is obvious. This project awaits the initiative of young, energetic members.

Research on the natural history of the Potomac Basin has been encouraged by the Washington Biologists’ Field Club since its inception in 1901. In particular, the Club has a long-standing interest in promoting field studies that have a direct relevance to Plummers Island and the adjacent mainland formerly owned by the Club. Since 1992, the Club has provided small grants to support research activities focused on inventories of little known groups of biota (e.g., invertebrates) in an effort to more thoroughly understand and document the biodiversity of the site. Currently (as of 2006), grants of up to $2,500 are offered to qualified investigators who apply to the Club’s research committee. Proposals for research support are solicited annually, and awards are made based on recommendations of the Club’s research committee to the board of managers. Proposals must be sponsored by a Club member, who serves as liaison for reporting progress. Investigators are required to furnish interim and final reports and are encouraged to publish their results in appropriate scientific outlets, acknowledging support from the Club. All grants awarded by the Club are listed in this book.

Recent grants have supported studies of breeding birds of the Island, fishes of the Potomac River, ecological studies of herbaceous plants, the flora of various special habitats in the Potomac Basin, the microlepidoptera of the Island, caterpillar food plants, and other diverse aspects of local natural history. Frequently, early studies on the biota serve as a baseline for this recent research. For example, pioneering studies on the effects of pollution from automobiles and trucks on the growth of lichens initiated by club member Mason Hale were continued and expanded by James Lawrey and students at George Mason University. Likewise, censuses of breeding bird populations allowed documentation of declines when data from studies by John Aldrich and Allen Duvall in the 1940s were compared with results obtained by David Johnston and Daniel Winings in the 1980s and 1990s.

Papers that treat any aspect of the biota of Plummers Island, whether supported by the Club or not, have been compiled in a bibliography of the natural history of Plummers Island and the immediate vicinity and listed in this book. Several larger studies focused specifically on the biota of the Island have been published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, but papers mentioning species collected on the Island are found in a broad array of taxonomic and ecological papers scattered throughout the scientific literature.


The books and photographs committee is charged with maintaining the Club’s archives, photographing new members and Club activities during the semiannual shad bake and oyster roast, and preparing periodic membership books or supplements thereto.

Former committee members, the late Luther Goldman and Karl Krombein, met with archival specialists from the Smithsonian Institution in 1992 to ask for recommendations on better preservation of our archival records. Following recommendations made by the archivists, the committee obtained archival-quality manila folders to store Club records such as minutes of Club and board meetings, correspondence, register sheets from the cabin, and unmounted photographs. Formerly the records were bound as large volumes every ten years. Bound volumes made duplication of particular records difficult and prevented integration of records that reached the archives after a volume had been bound. The Club records now are being kept as loose sheets or stapled reports in chronological sequence to facilitate storage and duplication as needed.

During the meeting concerning archival maintenance of our negatives and photographs, some of our old albums and negatives, formerly preserved in Karl Krombein’s office, also were shown to the archivists. They were pleased to see these historic photographs and glass plate negatives, remarked how well-preserved they were, and offered the help of the Smithsonian Institution in duplicating our photographs and making fresh negatives for their files as well as our own.

The late Luther Goldman processed the film he exposed at our annual field meetings and workdays at Plummers Island in his personal darkroom. Subsequently, he made prints for use in the Club’s albums. He purchased and put into use a new album of archival quality, storing the films and loose prints in archival quality manila folders. Currently the Club’s files and albums are in three file cabinets at the Smithsonian’s Department of Botany, but available to members and researchers for reviewing upon request. The Club now maintains all new photographs in digital format.

It was suggested that members visiting the Island record natural history notes on the register sheet during their visit. These notes and records are particularly valuable for persons searching past records and compiling data for the area over time. For example, Dick Manville, in his update of the vertebrates in our Natural History of Plummers Island series (1968), did a careful search of register records from 1900 to 1945 and made additions to the list from this source. These additions include Dick Griffith’s 1945 record of the timber rattlesnake on the west end of the Island and Karl Krombein’s 1961 record of the first sighting of the prothonotary warbler on the Island, which was nesting near the cabin.

An interesting photographic record was made at the May 4, 1996, shad bake. While clearing the debris from the fireplace, Al Gardner discovered a very live and large copperhead snake. The unwelcome guest was confined to a garbage can during the meal and was released on site at the conclusion of the festivities.