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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.