National Geographic : 1945 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine Near Green Spring, 12 miles southeast of Cumberland, the main trunk of the Potomac is formed by the junction of the South and North Branches. The South Branch rises near Hightown, Virginia. The North Fork of the South Branch rises near the top of Spruce Knob, highest mountain in West Virginia. They meet at Petersburg, West Virginia, and flow through a long rugged valley, little touched by industry, to the junction with the North Branch. The latter is considered the actual head of the river. In early days the river from Harpers Ferry to the source of the North Branch was known as the Cohongaruton, or "Wild Goose Stream," and the South Branch as the Potomac. But in his land grants Lord Fairfax applied the name Potomac to this section, and even tually it became the name of the whole stream. We cannot follow the North Branch beyond Cumberland. Surveyors for Lord Fairfax marked the western boundary of his property with the Fairfax Stone, at the source, or "first fountain of the Potomac River." There is now a marker on this site, near Thomas, West Virginia, and it is still known as the Fairfax Stone. Cumberland Once a Frontier Town Cumberland, one of the most historic of American cities, is a crowded, compact indus trial and railroad center and, except for cer tain residential sections, is at the bottom of a natural bowl rimmed about by pile on pile of mountains. Unlike so many cities of its size, Cumber land is not primarily an agricultural center and, because of its mountain surroundings, is 50 miles away from any other large town. It was long one of the frontier outposts of eastern civilization, close upon the Narrows, an important natural gateway through the Allegheny wall to the west. In fact, the Narrows are now within the city limits. In the past the Census Bureau found Cum berland to be the second largest city in Mary land. Whether the recent tremendous growth of suburbs immediately adjacent to Washing ton will make Silver Spring, one of the un incorporated portions of Montgomery County, slightly larger remains to be seen. Cumberland early became a natural trans fer and supply point on the National or Cum berland Road. It was the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and also for ten years of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, al though in Maryland it is nearer the Ohio than Chesapeake Bay. The city is essentially industrial, but I could not walk through its narrow, one-way streets without sensing its great historic past. The old city grew up around Fort Cumber land, which stood on a bluff overlooking the junction of the Potomac and Wills Creek. A picturesque stone structure, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, and the county courthouse now occupy the site. As a boy, George Washington had visited Thomas Cresap, field manager of the Ohio Company of Virginia, formed to trade with the Indians and acquire western lands.* George's elder half-brothers held shares in it. The company built a storehouse which later became Fort Cumberland. Cresap and an Indian friend, Nemacolin, blazed a path over the mountains, where the fingertips of the Potomac interlock closely with the headwaters of the Ohio. Practically all Washington's early military experience converged on Fort Cumberland and the famous trail over the mountains. When he was 21, he was sent from here al most to Lake Erie to warn the French to stay out of the trans-Allegheny country. The next year he was made second in com mand of a Virginia regiment destined to strike the first blow in the French and Indian War. Col. Joshua Fry, commanding officer, was thrown from his horse and died in Fort Cum berland, putting the youthful Washington in command of the campaign. The next year Washington shared Brad dock's defeat at what is now Pittsburgh. The only physical reminder in Cumberland of these great events is the small cabin in the little park between the rivers and the bluff where the fort stood, the first of the many headquarters which Washington occupied as a commanding officer. But the rivers and mountains are still there, enough to bring to the most unimaginative mind the steadfast purpose of the Father of his Country that the Potomac should be "the channel of conveyance of the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire." He was determined that the lands beyond the Alleghenies should not be lost to his coun try and divided up among European powers. Not only the National Road, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and Baltimore & Ohio Rail road, but in fact the whole system of com munication between our country's East and West, are the historic outgrowth of his early military campaigns and of his vision. The Potomac is a river of destiny because George Washington made it so. * See "Travels of George Washington," by William Joseph Showalter, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, January, 1932.