great falls park & the patomack canal

Sunday, March 16:  Today we go for a stroll along Great Falls in northern Virginia.  It’s only about a half hour from my house, but it’s probably been over 5 years since I’ve been here.  That shows how little we pay attention to the treasures in our own backyards.  On sunny spring days, there’s often a long line of cars waiting to get into the park, but today is cool and overcast, so luckily we get in without delay.

Great Falls, Virginia
Great Falls, Virginia
Bailey and Alex
Bailey and Alex
Great Falls
Great Falls
Great Falls
Great Falls
me with Alex at Great Falls
me with Alex at Great Falls
Great Falls
Great Falls
Great Falls, Virginia
Great Falls, Virginia
Great Falls Park
Great Falls Park
churning waters at Great Falls
churning waters at Great Falls
Mike, Bailey and Alex with the high water line marks from previous hurricanes and storms
Mike, Bailey and Alex with the high water line marks from previous hurricanes and storms
Great Falls
Great Falls

Great Falls is spectacular because here the Potomac River gathers all its force and speed and tumbles over jagged and steep rocks before it funnels into the narrow Mather Gorge, named for Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, from 1917-1929.  He had untiring enthusiasm for the National Park idea, a philosophy of conservation which has spread throughout the world.

Great Falls
Great Falls
the path along the Potomac
the path along the Potomac
Mather Gorge
Mather Gorge
From the cliffs
From the cliffs
Downriver from Great Falls in Mather Gorge
Downriver from Great Falls in Mather Gorge

Swimming and wading are prohibited near the river due to dangerous currents and hydraulics.  According to the National Park Service, many people have died over the years swimming in the Potomac River Gorge, as well as from falling in the river along the steep rocky shorelines. More than half of all river related injuries in the Potomac River Gorge are fatal and 72% of river related incidents are shoreline based activities (not kayaking/canoeing).

Potomac River at Great Falls
Potomac River at Great Falls
Looking down Mather Gorge
Looking down Mather Gorge
stream feeding into the Potomac
stream feeding into the Potomac
tree growing from rocks
tree growing from rocks
lichen
lichen
Mather Gorge
Mather Gorge
view from cliffs
view from cliffs
tangles of fallen trees
tangles of fallen trees
dried leaves
dried leaves

The Patowmack Canal, including its series of locks, was built to bypass the rapids of Great Falls to make the Potomac River navigable as far as the Ohio River Valley.  This project was George Washington’s dream, but he didn’t live to see its completion.

According to the National Park Service: The Patowmack Canal:  Thousands of boats locked through at Great Falls, carrying flour, whiskey, tobacco, and iron downstream and transporting cloth, hardware, firearms, and other manufactured products upstream.

Construction begun in 1785 and took seventeen years to complete — six years longer than the time required to locate, build, and begin occupying Washington, D.C., ten miles down river.

Patowmack Company had to dredge portions of the riverbed and skirt five areas of falls.  By far the most demanding task was building a canal with locks to bypass the Great Falls of the Potomac. Roaring over the rocks, the river drops nearly 80 feet in less than a mile.

The work force was composed of hired hands, indentured servants, and slaves rented from local landowners. The river’s swift currents, solid rock, and constant financial and labor problems hindered progress on the Patowmack Canal.

The Patowmack Company succumbed in 1828, turning over its assets and liabilities to the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The new company abandoned the Patowmack Canal in 1830 for an even more ambitious undertaking: a man-made waterway stretching from Georgetown to Cumberland on the Maryland side of the river.

Here is one of the remaining locks.

Alex runs across the old locks
Alex runs across the old locks
Alex walks in the lock
Alex walks in the lock
locks
locks

The Company House was built in the late 1790s by the Patowmack Company.  It was intended for the canal superintendent and his family, but it took so long to build that only one superintendent lived there.  It was later occupied by the canal lock tenders.  This chimney is all that remains of it today.

the Company House
the Company House ruins

We walk back to the parking lot on the inland trial where we see tangled forests and moss-covered rocks.  To see a full-sized slide show, click on any of the images below.

To read more about Great Falls Park, see National Park Service: Great Falls Park.

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37 thoughts on “great falls park & the patomack canal

  1. I bet you can’t wait for spring to come…. Green leaves are around the corner.
    As for up here in New Hampshire we had 2 above this morning. Still plenty of snow on the ground.

    Ron

      1. Was 3 above this morning and with $800 per month for heating oil, I can’t wait till spring comes.
        We still have about 30″ of snow on the ground and with this cold weather, it’ll be awhile before it melts. Can’t wait for summer and to open up the cottage.
        Spencer is home for a few days, the back to New York.

      2. $800 per month for heating oil? Oh dear. I can’t believe you have 30″ of snow on the ground. I hope the warm weather this week has melted some of it. I’m sure you are ready for spring. Tell Spencer I said hi! 🙂

  2. I’ve always loved Great Falls and would get on the Billy Goat trail any chance I had. We even took kids out there as some sort of an informal Outward Bound experience for city kids (I used to work with seriously emotionally disturbed kids in DC) – they had a great time out there, too.
    Did you know that the Potomac River’s source is up here in Highland County?

    1. I bet those kids loved Billy Goat trail. I haven’t been on the Maryland side of Great Falls since I returned home, but I’ll need to do that one nice spring day! I wonder if the Potomac has many sources, because on the history of the Patomack Canal it said the source was Cumberland, Maryland?? I know all the Difficult Run stream beds in our neighborhood feed into the Potomac too. 🙂

      1. Actually, the Potomac has many sources. Ours is the spring of the South Branch; somewhere in nearby West Virginia is the origin of the North Branch, I don’t know about the Cumberland part, but it is close to W.VA, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another branch from that direction..

      2. Yes, Annette, I guess like most rivers, there are many sources. Are you still buried under snow? We’re supposed to reach a high of 35 today but hopefully some rain tonight will melt some of the snow. I’m looking forward to the later half of the week, when we should have temps around 60!!!

      3. We got about 8-10 inches. This morning: ice on the car and freezing drizzle, and apparently more to come. Even the radio announcers are beginning to moan and groan on the air….:-) 60 degrees sounds like paradise, so ready for it.

      4. Yesterday, the first day of spring, was wonderful here. Blue skies, in the 50s, breezy. But today we’re back to gray skies; at least it’s supposed to be up to 57. Good luck on your presentation; I probably won’t be able to make it, but I will try to see if I can. It would allow me to be virtually transported, which I would love!

  3. Love the photo of you and Alex, Cathy! You look really trim 🙂 (I won’t tell you that I’m eating a dark chocolate Kitkat while I read this- but only a small one)
    Plenty of melt water in there, but I see what you mean about the sky. It makes such a difference to these kind of photos. I was messing about with my ‘infinity’ setting this morning. Haven’t a clue what it does. Must dig out that manual! Take care, hon. Big hugs!

    1. Thanks so much, Jo. I was working hard on losing weight and had gotten down below 144 at one point, but I’ve been a little discouraged from my walking goals by all this snow and am putting on weight again. I think the roads are clear enough for a brisk walk today though.

      Digging out that manual is a hard thing to do. I’ve taken to just experimenting with the camera, but still can’t bring myself to read that boring manual. Why can’t they make these things more interesting? 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jude. This walking is quite a commitment of an hour each day and in this snow, it’s a bit of a challenge. I’ve become a little lazy lately with recording my food though, so I see some weight creeping back on. Oh, so difficult!!

      1. Well it is obviously paying off. I need to shed a lot of weight, must get motivated!! How’s things going otherwise? Any decision made on the job front?

      2. At least that’s one good thing, that I’m getting in shape, Jude. No word on the job front though I’ve applied already for 28 jobs. Nada. Other than that, I’m working away on my novel and getting involved in some local photography groups. I wish I had more positive news. Am getting pretty depressed about this job situation. Hope all is well with you!

      3. Bit depressed with the weather and the fact that I haven’t been anywhere since Christmas!! And the fact that the house we were purchasing fell through at the last minute. BUT now got a holiday booked early June in the Lake District and Scotland so something to look forward to, AND it looks as if the Seattle trip may be on for late September. Now just need to get the Sydney trip sorted 🙂 Oh, and buy a house!

      4. Oh no, I’m sorry Jude. I know exactly how you feel about the weather. I’m so sorry the house you were purchasing fell through. That’s really disappointing. Lucky for you to have a holiday booked in the Lake District & Scotland. I love the Lake District, though I’ve never been to Scotland! And you’re going to Seattle? Do you have a specific thing there you’re going to see? Good luck buying a house. I hope the next one goes through smoothly. Can’t wait to read about all your travels. 🙂

      5. OH has a conference in Seattle so I’m just going along for the journey! I’ll probably just wander as usual, but if you know of any “must sees” or gardens then shout!

        We’ll probably drive down the PCH to San Fran to complete that road-trip and stop off at places along the way.

        If you have any ideas email me!!

      6. It’s been such a long time since I was in Seattle, Jude, so I don’t have any recommendations, sadly. I’m sure you will find plenty to see though. The drive to SF will be wonderful, of course. Sounds fun! xxx

    1. Sounds like a great idea! With all the time I have now, you’d think I’d have time to do that, but with the job applications and working to finish my novel, there seems to be no time left. One step at a time. 🙂

    1. Yes, still cold as of Sunday, Kathy. Luckily the weather yesterday for the first day of spring was lovely. Today and tomorrow will be overcast and cool, around 60 F, but at least we’re not below freezing, like we have been for most of the winter. I’m so ready for spring!

    1. Yes, Lynn, Great Falls is really an amazing place. You know how you get about a place when you’ve been there scores of times, you tend to not get so excited as you once did. I hope to go back on a sunnier day. 🙂

    1. Yes, Great Falls is always crowded on nice spring and fall days! I’m kind of glad we went on a dreary day to avoid the crowds, although the photos don’t look nearly as nice as they do on a sunny day. 🙂

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