By Kasha Helget
ALEXANDRIA,VA- The newly restored Windmill Hill Park at 501 S. Union St. now includes an impressive plaque honoring the late Ryan Wojtanowski. Friends, family and community activists proposed the memorial given Ryan’s passion for the City, the river, and the people with whom he had such deep connections his whole life.
“Cap’n Ry” was head captain of the Dandy Restaurant Cruise Ship and a Master Mariner in the U.S. Merchant Marine. He could pilot, maintain, and repair pretty much any vessel above or below the water, and entertain crew and passengers along the way. He was also an accomplished musician who led a jazz quartet during Dandy cruises, and an inveterate storyteller. Ryan proudly served on Alexandria’s Environmental Policy and Waterfront Commissions in which he championed both public access to the river while protecting its ecology. Shortly before he died, Ryan was deeply honored to be chosen as Alexandria’s Poet Laureate.
Park Honors Cap’n Ry’s Ecological Dreams
Ryan would also be very proud to know that Windmill Hill Park has become an ecological success story that also includes greater public access to the river. Following the City Council’s approval of the Windmill Hill Park Shoreline Project in 2015, a carefully-executed plan added natural and pollinator-friendly habitat areas, a trail along the water that connects Ford’s Landing City Park to Shipyard Park, enhancements to water access points, seating walls along the river as well as benches, and picnic areas, and a renovated dog park.
In place of the dilapidated bulkhead and eroded shoreline, there is now over 1,000 feet of “living shoreline” in the park’s freshwater tidal cove. The native vegetation above and below water makes the shoreline more resilient against storms and provides a buffer to nutrient pollution and a habitat for fish.
Rod Simmons, the City’s Natural Resource Manager and plant ecologist ensured that the park would include local ecotype vegetation. This was critical because all plantings are not only within a resource protection area, but more importantly, adjoin natural areas—both aquatic and terrestrial—and the Potomac River as a major avenue of dispersal.
The park incorporates diverse beds of submerged and floating aquatic plants, and above water, an extensive mix of grass-like plants, and perennials that include Small-flowered Agrimony, Giant Sunflower, New York Ironweed, Swamp Milkweed, Purplestem Aster, Mistflower, and Cardinal Flower, along with native trees and shrubs. The area is indeed an ecologist’s and native plant lover’s dream.
The park has new life and is flourishing. If you haven’t gone there lately, you should make a point to visit it to relax with kids (there’s a great play area) and dogs, soak in the unobstructed views of the river and the Wilson Bridge, appreciate how a natural area can thoughtfully be restored and rejuvenated, and celebrate folks like Cap’n Ry who believed a space like this could be created right in his hometown of Alexandria.
Special thanks to Susan Gitlin, Jack Browand, and the Alexandria City Council for their efforts and support to honor Ryan with the plaque in Windmill Hill Park.