April 21, 2011

Great Falls Park and C & O Canal NHP, Virginia/Maryland

Located just a stones throw away from Washington D.C. are an unexpected gem of natural beauty. Located within the rocky Mather Gorge, Great Falls are a series of waterfalls on the Potomac River with a total drop of 76 feet over a 1 mile distance. What makes Great Falls all the more spectacular is the sheer volume of water carried by the Potomac River, as well as, the numerous channels the river has carved into the bedrock.

One of numerous side channels through the rocks

Up on the exposed bedrock terraces, some unique assemblages of plants occur. That is because the exposed rock does not hold moisture and contains little soil, for the plants that live on them it is almost like an arid climate. Thus, you will find species not common to the region, such as midwestern prairie plants and boreal tree species from further north.

The Terrace Forest

The river branches into many individual channels cutting through the rocks, leaving many rocky islands. The number of individual cascades and falls are practically uncountable, and change regularly with changes in flows.

The falls were certainly a major navigational hazard in the early days of colonization. George Washington was a major proponent of developing a way for commerce to head up the Potomac into the Appalachians and the vast interior. Thus, in 1785, the Potowmack Company began construction of small canal segments to circumvent the various falls and rapids on the river. Getting barges down the river from Cumberland, MD to Washington became fairly easy. But, getting those barges back up stream was more difficult. In fact, the only way to do it was to push them with poles against the current in a very slow and arduous journey.

One of the locks on the C & O Canal

In 1824, the Chesapeake and Ohio Company began work on the C and O Canal. They hired the former engineer of the Erie Canal to design it. They wanted to build a canal that would connect the Ohio River Valley with Chesapeake Bay. This would allow commerce to move across the entire United States from the Chesapeake Bay and eastern seaboard up to the Ohio River Valley, and down Mississippi River all the way down to New Orleans.

Great Falls Tavern was built in 1831 to service and lodge workers on the canal
Today it is the NPS Visitor Center for the park

The canal ended up connecting Georgetown in Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD and traversed 184 miles. It did not end up going all the way to the Ohio River due to the cost and technical issues of crossing the eastern Continental Divide. By 1836, the canal was operating full speed with 74 locks. Barges would drift downstream and mules would pull the barges back upstream using the towpath trail that paralleled the canal.

One of the old wooden locks

 Its enormous initial success however, was short-lived because the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, that paralleled the same route, was finished in 1837 and that greatly reduced the need for the canal. However, the canal was still used to barge coal downstream from the Allegany Mountains until 1924. Generally, it did not make economic sense to haul stuff upstream, so empty barges were just pulled back up to the coal mines.

Mules along the tow path pulling barges upstream

The federal government wanted to make the C and O Canal and towpath a recreation area as early as 1938, but war and difficult finances put off those projects and the canal went into disrepair. In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid hiker and outdoorsman, led the charge to protect it as a national park. Finally, in 1971, the C and O Canal was preserved as a National Historic Park.

A historic barge you can ride from Georgetown

A Park Service Ranger in traditional garb

Today, you can hike or bike the entire 184 miles including nice sections through Georgetown, Great Falls Park, and Harpers Ferry NHP.  The C and O Canal is very popular with bikers and joggers and recieves over 3 million visits per year. In addition, there are a couple of places where you can take an authentic barge ride, for instance in Georgetown, where national park rangers dress in historic era clothing and play the music of the day on their bangoes.

Great Falls and the Potomac River from the air

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