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Potomac History 101

July 22, 2002

Excerpted from the staff draft of the Potomac Subregion Master Plan

Based on evidence of habitation discovered along the banks of the Potomac River, the area known as the Potomac Subregion was initially settled by Paleo-Indians some 12,000 years ago.

European explorers settled the area in the early 1700s, establishing large estates and tobacco plantations that employed slave labor. Tobacco was the most suitable crop for the region’s climate and soil, and eventually the most profitable.

When the continuous cultivation of tobacco led to depletion of nutrients from the soil, local planters turned to wheat, and from the end of the Revolution until the mid-19th century, wheat was the area’s most widely-planted crop.

BY 1840, agricultural production continued to decline and many farmers became discouraged and moved west on roads that followed Indian trails.

Along the Potomac, River Road developed from a trail to a wagon road built to help farmers carry produce to market. Eventually, public roads connected Georgetown and its urban markets with the farmlands of Potomac and Rockville.

Seven Locks Road was a wagon road that became so well used that landowners petitioned the county to have it designated as a public thoroughfare. Other roads designated and improved in this fashion included South Glen Road, Kentsdale Drive, Tuckerman Lane, Bells Mill Road and Brickyard Road.

Other transportation improvements led to growth in Potomac. On July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams broke ground for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal near Little Falls, and by 1831, there were approximately 20 miles of canal in use between Georgetown and Seneca. By 1850, the canal extended to Cumberland. Fertilizer was imported by canal into the area to enrich the soil, and with easier access to markets, farms located near the canal began to prosper. By 1859, and despite competition from the railroad, the canal was thriving, transporting grain, flour, coal and farm produce.

OTHER INDUSTRIES in the area included stone quarrying. The Seneca Stone Quarry’s distinctive reddish sandstone was mined from 1774 until 1900 and was used in the Smithsonian Institution building (now the Arts and Industries Building). Many of the lockhouses and most of the aqueducts along the canal were also built of Seneca sandstone.

Construction of the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850s contributed to the area’s growth. This project was designed to tap an abundant supply of clean water above Great Falls for use in the rapidly growing District of Columbia. A dam was built at Great Falls to divert water into a conduit which ran to reservoirs in the District. Not only did this project bring new workers to the area, it also improved access with the construction of the Conduit Road above the piping system (now MacArthur Boulevard).

DURING THE CIVIL WAR, area residents divided their loyalty between North and South. Darnestown was the scene of Civil War activity due to its strategic location near Potomac River crossings and its proximity to Washington. Some 18,000 Union troops were garrisoned in and around Darnestown in 1861, and in 1864 large numbers of both Union and Confederate troops moved through the area.

After the Civil War, the county’s population increased, the canal boosted the local economy and the Great Falls aqueduct encouraged further development. When Civil War soldiers discovered gold, they envisioned another California Gold Rush. As word of the gold spread after the war, mines were established along Rock Run stream (near Avenel) and the canal. Although the success of the mines varied, they attracted newcomers to the area.

After emancipation, many African-Americans were able to buy land and establish relatively autonomous communities where they made their living as laborers for neighboring farms while providing food for their families on their own small farms. These communities included homesteads near Oaklyn Drive, and in the Cropley community near Great Falls where Angler’s Inn now stands.

THROUGH THE 1930S, area farms and orchards were generally productive, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many farms between Potomac Village and Rockville were developed for housing. During the 1960s, development accelerated and Potomac experienced a rapid 287-percent population increase. These development trends have continued as Montgomery County has become more populated.

In the past three decades, much of the farmland and woodland in the Potomac region has been subdivided for residential use.

Spreading suburbanization, the loss of agricultural open space and the impact of roads and traffic on a formerly rural area present major challenges for the creation of communities and the preservation of historic and environmental resources.