National Geographic : 1928 Mar
THE GREAT FALLS OF THE POTOMAC BY GILBERT GROSVENOR TIHE rock-hewn gorge and magnifi cent falls of the Potomac River are the most striking scenic fea tures in the vicinity of the National Capi tal. The broad, calm stream that flows by Potomac Park, separating Washington and Virginia, narrows suddenly above the city. Its shores change from bottom lands and gently rolling hills to take on the sterner aspect of palisades, cut at frequent intervals by deep gullies, through some of which small streams enter the river in tumultuous cascades. On the Virginia side, where the cliffs rise almost sheer from the water's edge, these ravines are so steep and so numer ous that a journey along the bluffs entails more travel vertically than in a horizontal direction. Just above the ruins of the old Aque duct Bridge, which formerly carried a canal across the river, the trio of jagged rocks known as The Three Sisters recall a romantic legend of the Red Men who once roamed these rugged shores. According to the tradition, these rocks mark the place where the three daughters of an Analostan chief were caught in a whirlpool and dragged to their watery grave. They were paddling across the river, so the story goes, to a secret tryst with their Powhatan lovers on the Vir ginia shore; but the river demons inter vened and, after accomplishing the de struction of the sisters, caused the three gloomy rocks to rise from the spot where their bodies sank beneath the waves. The Virginia and Maryland shores con verge rapidly as one journeys up the river, until a few miles above Washington they are separated by less than Ioo feet of water, now swift and turbulent. Above Little Falls, which is a series of rapids, the river widens again. Numerous islands spangle the Maryland shore, while Virginia's cliffs become wilder and more rugged. The waters pursue a more lei surely course here, but it is only a tempo rary calm before the storm, and 15 miles above the Capital they gather for a ma jestic plunge over a wall of granite which all the Potomac's ages of work has been unable to wear down. These falls offer a scene of impressive grandeur. Heaps of rocks are scattered about--enormous granite bowlders and jagged reefs of gneiss-as if some Titan of long ago had vented his wrath by up heaving the crust of the earth itself. The wildness of the place, as the waters churn and boil in their never-ending warfare with the rocks, is comparable only to some of the larger mountain canyons of the West, and is hard to conceive as being within a few miles of the Capital City. Normally the river here tumbles through a rather narrow channel in its race for the Chesapeake, but when spring melts the mountain snows and deluged valleys pour their overflowing streams into its upper reaches, the falls become a swirling flood that rages from shore to shore with a roar that may be heard for miles. The old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which paralleled the Potomac from Georgetown up to and on beyond the falls, was begun about the same time as the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, and there was once a keen rivalry between them for the freight traffic between Washington and Cumberland. But the "iron horse" outdistanced the faithful, plodding mules of the towpath, and the canal is no longer in operation. However, transportation's loss has been the gain of thousands who know and love the hike along the towpath, with its great trees and thickets fringing the still waters of the canal, while here and there a moss encrusted rock, bolder than the rest, juts out like some miniature Lorelei. Birds frequent the vicinity in countless thousands. Wrens, sparrows, warblers, thrushes, and myriad other varieties haunt the thickets. Kingfishers seek their prey along the water's edge. Mocking birds are permanent residents of the woods, and the cheery whistle of the lordly cardinal may be heard at almost any time of year. Indeed, at certain seasons this magnifi cently caparisoned songster is encountered in flocks. Where Cabin John Creek comes down to the river, man has carried a road across the precipitous valley on one of the world's largest single spans of masonry.