National Geographic : 1930 Mar
APPROACHING WASHINGTON BY TIDEWATER POTOMAC BY PAUL WILSTACH AUTHOR OF "HOLIDAYS AMONG THE HILL TOWNS OF UMBRIA AND TUSCANY" AND "THE STONE BEEHIVES OF THE ITALIAN HEEL," IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE IN STARTING to explore the Poto mac River, there are two points of departure. One is the point of de parture of our interest, and the other is the point of departure of our trip. Interest in the Potomac is on the march instantly one realizes that it is the river of Washington; of Washington the man, the greatest figure of our national history, and of Washington the city, the capital of the Nation, the focus of our national administration, and the city of our history in the making. And our interest is accelerated as we realize that the old river presents other great names of celebrities who lived on the plantations along its shores: the Lords Baltimore, who planted the first settle ment of Maryland, near the river's mouth ; the Calverts, the Lees, the Carters, the Hansons, the Stones, the Fitzhughs, the Masons, the Mercers, and the Fairfaxes. A DIVERSITY OI POTOMACS The point of departure of the trip, how ever, appears at first less simple. There seem to be several Potomacs. There is fresh-water and there is tide water Potomac. The former is all that water coming down from the mountains and over the Falls above Washington City.* That water is soon lost in the brine of tidewater Potomac, which extends from the point of mingling to the mouth of the river, at Chesapeake Bay. Here strong tides rise and fall, sometimes more than three feet about the wharves of Washing ton. Here, too, the water is briny. It is so impregnated with the salt of the sea that, even at the head of tidewater, steamer captains dare not introduce it into the boilers of their ships. This briny reach is really not a river; it is an arm of the Chesapeake. Then there is the surface Potomac and a secret river hidden in its depths. The surface waters express themselves in broad * See "The Great Falls of the Potomac," by Gilbert Grosvenor, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for March, 1928. reaches between banks of engaging love liness. They vary in width from one to seven miles. The hidden river is often only a few hundred feet wide, and unseen it serpentines its way back and forth from one shore to the other in a way that teases and often wrecks the inexperienced mari ner. It is called "the channel." Up it ocean-going vessels of considerable size come to the docks of Washington City. If the sources of the fresh water which comes down from the mountains over the Falls were to dry up, and thus the Po tomac above the Falls were to cease to exist, it would not mean the drying up of Tidewater Potomac. The channel at least would remain, shallower by only a few feet, and it would still permit the ocean-going vessels to reach Washington harbor. It is in Tidewater Potomac that one finds the river of the greater interest, the Potomac of history, of the landings, of the old plantations, of the celebrities who have made it one of the most distinguished rivers in America. Curiously, the better way to see this river is not to start where it appears to begin, and so float down on its currents to where it ends in merging with the bay; but rather to start where it ends and be carried up by its tides and by that inter esting tide of its history which entered here, at its mouth, three hundred years ago. ICELAND, SPAIN, AND ENGLAND CONTEND ABOUT THE POTOMAC The story of this trip up the broad reaches of Tidewater Potomac is actu ally a composite of many trips, by many kinds of land and water craft, but here, for brevity's sake, reduced to its simplest terms without the inconvenience of de lays, whether of boat schedules or mo tor trails, without the disappointments of weather or of the many futile side trips which anyone must make in order to find out where are the points of genuine inter est and how to reach them.