Canal's 200th Anniversary Showcases Great Falls

Canal's 200th Anniversary Showcases Great Falls

Link to George Washington Celebrated

Q. Even in 2002, what does U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, whose 10th Congressional District includes Great Falls, have in common with George Washington, the former and first president of the United States?

a) A long driveway

b) Deep religious faith

c) Logistical problems establishing commerce across the Potomac River.

The answer is all three.

Two hundred years ago, the biggest problem confronting the economic development of Great Falls was how to circumnavigate the “great falls” of the Potomac River Gorge, where the level of the river drops more than 75 feet in altitude within about 300 feet along the riverbank.

Wolf was faced with near-revolt among his Great Falls constituents who did not want that same gorge despoiled with a “techway” that was proposed to speed goods to the air cargo facility at Dulles International Airport.

WASHINGTON’S SOLUTION was to build a canal and bypass the falls altogether, providing a way for furs, lumber, grain, and other goods to flow from the west to the port of Georgetown and then, on to England.

“He saw the Potomac River as a trade route,” said Great Falls National Park Ranger Cheryl Bresee.

“He knew if they could improve it, they could bind the Western regions” to the more civilized settlements in the east, she said.

The many different tribes of Algonkian Indians would all profit from a reliable route that would reinforce Great Falls as a point of trade.

The canal was designed and dug, opening in 1785 and maintained by The Patowmack Canal Company. Completed in 1802, it was about one mile long.

Washington was president of the company, but he resigned to accept a higher office: President of the United States.

“They used rather crude boats, like rafts and ‘sharpers’ that had to be guided by poles to propel them down the water and get around the falls,” Bresee said.

“The canal is known as the engineering feat of the 18th Century,” said Bresee. “It is a national historic and engineering landmark.

During that time, the tiny town of Matildaville was incorporated to support “the booming canal trade” that was going to be coming through great Falls.

“A lot of the people that lived there were workers. The businesses supported the canal trade: there was a mill and an iron forge,” said Bresee.

Robert E. Lee’s father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, sponsored the town.

But the company made a profit in only one year out of the 28 of its existence.

“The river was so variable, with its flood and drought cycle, just like we see today,” said Bresee. Safe river travel was possible only for about 35-40 days out of the year. By 1802, the canal had failed, and so did the town.

IN THE LATE 1800S and early 1900s, the Great Falls of the Potomac had become a popular gathering place, with a dance hall, an observation tower, and carousel. For four cents, residents in Washington could ride a trolley that traveled 14 miles from Georgetown to the park.

“It was extremely popular to come out to Great Falls. They had trains running all day long on the Old Dominion Trolley Line,” said Bresee. That line is now Old Dominion Drive.

Today, it is the “oooh” factor that draws most park visitors, even when the level of the river is as low as it is now, she said.

“Viewing the falls is what almost everyone comes here to do,” said Bresee. “We get them to the falls, and then we start telling them about the canal.”

Rock climbing and kayaking are also popular, and many people just want to spread a picnic and enjoy the trees and sound of the river.

“Just coming to look at the falls is by far the most popular,” said Bresee, who coordinated “Discovery Day” at the park on Sept. 21.

“We wanted to highlight all the different aspects of the park, to have people come out and experience a variety of activities,” she said. “We want it to be an annual event.”

Demonstrations included a talk about raptors, or birds of prey, by Kent Knowles of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia. He introduced a barn owl, a barred owl, and a “kestrel” or sparrow hawk, Bresee said.

The Mill Run Dulcimer Band played twice at the Visitor’s Center, and John Rappahan, a former park ranger at Great Falls who is now assigned to the Mall in Washington, gave a gold-panning demonstration.

A program on snakes and turtles by Rachel Berger introduced Checkers, the orange corn snake, and Shadow, a black rat snake that is more than six feet long. Both reside at the Visitor’s Center in the Park.

On a “falls walk,” Lonsway also discussed another common resident: the copperhead, a pit viper that is poisonous. It has a tan body with a dark brown “saddle,” and grows to be about three feet long, said Lonsway.

“People constantly get kinds of snakes mixed up,” said Bresee, confusing the difference between the six-foot long, harmless, black snake, a constrictor, with the copperhead, a pit viper.

“Whenever they see a snake it’s always a copperhead, no matter what color it is,” said Bresee. “We always get these snake reports in the spring.“

Snapping and painted turtles also live in the park’s 800-acre spread, she said.

And deer. They eat everything, including the poison ivy that climbs trees at the park and can transfer its itchiness to humans by the touch of its oil.

But deer can and do dine on it with no harm, Lonsway said.