National Geographic : 1945 Jul
Potomac, River of Destiny By ALBERT W. ATWooD HAS been said that few other national capitals in the world have near-by scenic values surpassing those of Washington.* If this be so, it is because the Potomac River, almost enfolding the Capital in a gigantic Y, has remained largely unspoiled since 1608 when Captain John Smith ascended it, possibly to Great Falls. But the Potomac has more than scenery; it is a river of destiny. Much of George Washington's life was devoted to the even tually successful project of uniting by way of the Potomac the Atlantic seaboard Colonies with the inland empire beyond the Alleghenies. Every American schoolboy has heard of the Potomac. But the river that most people know is the broad tidal estuary from Wash ington to Chesapeake Bay, wider at its mouth than even the Mississippi. It is the river of Mount Vernon, Wakefield, and Stratford; of the Lees, Washingtons, Fair faxes, and Fitzhughs; of historic Tidewater Virginia and Maryland.t But there is another and utterly different Potomac with which comparatively few people are familiar, a river of the upper reaches, from Washington to Cumberland, with its sources in the remote highlands of West Virginia, Vir ginia, and western Maryland (map, pages 36 and 37). This is an equally historic river and was far more the direct concern of both the youth ful and mature George Washington than the placid stretch on which he lived. The Potomac of which I write ends at the head of tidewater and navigation in the historic Georgetown section of Washington, where the tidal estuary receives the river proper. Nation's Capital at the Fall Line It is no accident that the Nation's Capital was located at the fall line. Trenton, Phila delphia, and Richmond also sprang up at similar transshipment points; beyond are un navigable rapids. At Washington the Coastal Plain comes to an end at the fall line and the Piedmont plateau begins, giving way in turn to the Ap palachian Mountain region. The Potomac, from Washington to Cumber land, has an advantage denied to most rivers, in that the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal roughly parallels and for the most part runs close to it for 184.5 miles. The canal, which is entirely in Maryland except for a short distance in the District of Columbia, is held by the National Park Serv ice as a memorial to the great canal-building era of the early 19th century. In 1938-39, 22 miles of the canal, from Georgetown to Seneca, Maryland, were re stored to the original condition, bed filled with water, towpath cleared for pedestrians and cyclists, and locks in actual operation. Since the 1942 flood, however, normal water level is maintained only in the four miles adjacent to Washington, but the entire 22 mile stretch is increasing in popularity as a recreation area (Plates III, V, VII). River Turbulent; Canal Serene During summer months anyone may ride happily, for a nominal fee, on a horse-drawn barge, the Canal Clipper, at the terrific rate of 2y2 miles per hour, along the Georgetown level (page 38). Partly because of contrast with the near-by, rugged Potomac gorge, the sleepy-serene canal has a unique charm. Time and Nature have mellowed it. President John Quincy Adams dug the first spadeful of earth near Georgetown July 4, 1828, but the canal was not finished until 1850. It then operated until 1924. During the canal's long period of operation, boats were lowered the 605 feet from Cumber land to Washington or raised on the return trip by a stepping up or down process through 74 lift locks, many of which remain, after nearly a century, in relatively good condition. Curiously enough, one of the first private industrial telephone systems in the world was installed along the canal. The boats, which bore such fancy names as Darling, Rough and Ready, Cock Robin, Jenny Lind, Hero, Peacock, Unexpected, American Flag, and General George Washing ton, averaged 4 miles an hour. The record speed was 30 round trips a year. The mules, pulling at the end of 225 feet of rope, were carried in mule sheds at the bows of the boats when not at work. Children * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Na tion's Capital," by James Bryce, June, 1913; "Sources of Washington's Charm," by J. R. Hildebrand, June, 1923; "Washington: Its Beginning, Its Growth, and Its Future," by William Howard Taft, March, 1915; "Washington, Home City and Show Place," by Leo A. Borah, June, 1937; "Washington Through the Years," by Gilbert Grosvenor, November, 1931; and "Wonders of the New Washington," by Frederick G. Vosburgh, April, 1935. t See "A Maryland Pilgrimage," by Gilbert Grosve nor, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Feb ruary, 1927, and "Approaching Washington by Tide water Potomac," by Paul Wilstach, March, 1930.