National Geographic : 1945 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine But every now and then the river spreads out into broad, still pools in scenes of rare pastoral loveliness where field and woodland combine to give a natural, parklike effect. Fairy, dreamlike islands, mostly small, a few fairly large, some lying low in the stream and others rising to surprising heights, dot the river's course. The high, precipitous escarpment on the Virginia shore, along the base of which runs the swift, dark river, is broken at frequent intervals by hanging valleys, down which rush small but boisterous streams to drop far over into the river below. Across on the Maryland side, still water ways thread an intricate pattern through quiet scenes of sylvan beauty. For the canoeist there is recreation of every type. For the timid, the broad, placid stretches will do; for the brave, there is plenty of "white water work" in the foaming rapids. The Majesty of Great Falls Fifteen miles from Washington the Potomac gorge reaches its zenith in the Great Falls,* where the river makes a majestic plunge over a series of granite terraces and a riotous profusion of giant boulders (Plate IV). Wrote Mrs. Trollope: "The falls of the Potomac are awfully sub lime: the dark, deep gulf which yawns before you, the foaming, roaring cataract, the eddy ing whirlpool, and the giddy precipice, all seem to threaten life, and to appall the senses. Yet it was a great delight to sit upon a high and jutting crag, and look and listen." The flow of water at Great Falls ranges from 500 cubic feet per second during droughts, or the merest dribble, to 480,000 cubic feet in flood. Anything over 100,000 feet per second is flood stage. During high water the falls are completely covered by continuous roaring rapids. The most effective scenic stage is between 4,000 and 40,000 feet. On the Virginia side of Great Falls may be seen what are possibly the only remains of any engineering works actually done by George Washington which show his original directive genius. These are a section of the canal and a series of partly ruined locks, as well as the ruins of a jail of the Potomac Company, of which Washington was president and which was the first corporate improvement of naviga tion for public use in America. It has been said that the improvements made by the "Patowmack" Company and completed in 1802 were as great an engineer ing triumph for that day as was the Panama Canal at a later time. A drop in the water level of 76 feet had to be overcome in less than a mile, with no ade quate tools or explosives and no engineers or workmen familiar with lock design and con struction. Where the last lock enters the Potomac below the falls there is a practically solid granite wall of 50 feet, as anyone who visits the spot can see for himself, which had to be blasted through with powder. Old iron wedges used for blasting are still stuck in the granite wall. After a century and a half and many dis astrous floods, the dark "Seneca red" walls of the locks are still handsome and in places solid-looking. The great blocks of stone are beautifully hand-cut and fitted with precision and trim alignment. Directly below the point where the last lock enters the river, the stream is narrow and flows swiftly and darkly. Steep rock walls rise on either side. There is no sign of life. No scene in the interior of Alaska or Siberia could be more primitive. Only the larger falls were by-passed with canals by the Potomac Company; from the lesser falls and ripples, rocks and other ob structions were removed. Some of the raft like boats or barges did not attempt the hard upstream trip, but were broken up for lumber at Georgetown. Near Great Falls there was an assembly pool for barges, each one waiting its turn to go through the five locks. Ruins of a jail in dicate that western boatmen may have become unruly while waiting their turn. George Washington and the Potomac Company During its more than 20 years of operation, about 100,000 tons of freight were carried through the canals, and one dividend of $5.55 was paid. Washington invested $10,000 of his own money in the company and, until his duties as President of the United States took all his time, supervised its work. He gave 50 shares of stock at a par value of $22,200 to found a university in the Na tion's Capital (now George Washington Uni versity), but the stock became worthless because the shipping season was too short for profits, being limited to high water. But the Potomac Company's limited finan cial success should not measure its historic significance, since all its rights were trans ferred to the new project, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. * See "Great Falls of the Potomac," by Gilbert Grosvenor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1928.