Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Visit to Great Falls, Maryland

So last week, I took my mother to Great Falls National Park. It's a spot where the Potomac River runs through some rapids and low falls, and it's quite a spectacular view. It's also one of the Capitol Area's lesser-known attractions, even though it's only 15 miles from downtown Washington, DC. It has access points on both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the river, and on this day we were in Maryland.

The whole river is disrupted by these rapids, a major reason why commercial navigation of the Potomac was impossible.
The river was fairly low this time, but the views were still worth the drive.

Here's Mom.

Here's a view of a section of the adjacent C&O Canal with the canal boat restored by the Park Service visible at the far end.
This canal runs from Washington DC up through the Appalachians to Cumberland, MD 184 miles away. Construction began in 1828 and it was used to haul coal and agricultural goods for 94 years before it was abandoned due to the rise of the railroads and severe river flooding that wiped much of the canal out in 1924. Over 4,000 miles of these canals once criss-crossed the eastern US but this small preserved section here at Great Falls is pretty much all that's left. Now the entire route is a national park, but most of it is dry. The tow path remains though, as a 184-mile long hiking and biking trail. And on this day, because my mom is here, we're going to ride on that canal boat. (Are you watching this, God? This is me, being a really, really devoted son.) It took twenty two years to dig this canal by hand using a mix of contract workers, rented slaves and indentured servants brought over from Europe. Thou

Here's a close-up of the lock gate. The doors are opened and closed manually, and so are the gates in each door that let the water in and out. The lock is original, although much of the woodwork of the gates has been replaced over the years. The locks--74 of them over the 184-mile length of the canal, were each operated by a lock keeper who lived in the adjacent lockhouse provided by the canal company. The pay was nominal, but they got a house and a garden plot, and they could trade with the boatmen for things that they needed or wanted to sell.
Here's Mom again. On the boat and waiting for the trip.
The boat is being pulled into the lock by two Park Service guides--in period dress--who are tugging on the tow lines.

Here's Mom again.
Oh wait--it's one of the mules that is going to pull the boat down the canal. Sorry Mom, but it's a simple enough mistake.

The mule team pulls the boat down the canal while the guide talks about it. In the old days, there would be two mule teams of two mules each. Two would ride and two would pull, and every six hours they'd be switched out. There were two rooms on the canal boats typically; one housed the mules and the other housed the boatman's family, who usually traveled with him and acted as crew. The whole family lived and slept in the one room.

After a bit of a hike down the canal, the mules are stopped.
The boat gets turned around and we go back to the lock house.
The canal is tranquil now with just this boat on it, but in the canal's heyday, there were over 500 such canal boats and mule teams each trying to use this narrow stretch of water. And it's interesting to note that this canal was still being used to move coal during and after World War One.

As an added bonus, there was a troop of Union soldiers there, demonstrating their muskets and close-order drills, and telling us stories about serving with the likes of Grant, Hooker, Sherman and Old NFO.

All in all, a darn nice day. weather could not have been better and Mom enjoyed herself.


  1. Hey Murphy;

    Awesome pics..and you HAD to remind Old NFO about all the times he stood watch on the Potomac during the war between the states...LOL

    1. It was actually the war of 1812.

  2. Great history Murph. I had no ideer.

  3. When I had the misfortune of living in the Metro DC area, Great Falls was my favorite place to go. The river there is beautiful, and it's never the same as it was the last time. I never went on the canal boat, though. Looks like a great time was had by all (except maybe the mule).

  4. If you go to the far parking lot at Great Falls, and walk about 50 feet or so in the same direction, you will find the remains of an old gold mine.I have not been there for a while, but you used to be able to get into the first section (Past the iron gate, just so you feel like you are accomplising something...) Lots of mining in the area in the past...In fact, Goldsboro road was named that for a reason....

    1. Dont tell him that - he'll try and get in!

  5. I remember ice skating on the C&O canal when I was a lot younger.

  6. Anonymous9:32 PM

    Thanks for sharing the pictures