On a bright crisp morning, while paddling the Potomac River above Washington, DC, Byron Bradley took a detour. Bearing off through a break in the trees, he launched his kayak on a playful ride down an intimate wooded corridor that looks like a stream but isn’t.
Bradley rode the current with a nearly constant grin. He nudged his kayak through rocks and ripples with fast, firm strokes before spilling back into the main river channel about a mile downstream.
This route was once a canal — one small piece of George Washington’s grand plan for the Potomac River — known as the Seneca Bypass.
Little is left that suggests its historic past. But Bradley, a river guide and paddle instructor, knows its story. “When you paddle a place as long as I have, you learn about it,” he said. “You can’t separate a river from its history.”
On the Potomac River, history inevitably involves George Washington.
Washington, more than any of the United States’ early leaders, knew the Potomac River well, from its broad tidal expanse to its craggy gorge at Great Falls and its mountain headwaters to the west.
The Potomac was the backdrop for much of his life, from birth and youth to adulthood and death.
Just as his life was connected to the river, he believed it would connect the nation. By making improvements — like building canals and bridges, dredging, and removing Indian fishing weirs from the river channel — the Potomac could become a trade route that would bind fledgling western settlements to the East Coast’s established commercial centers.
“Washington was very interested in creating a waterway that would link the Eastern seaboard to the interior, where other countries like Spain and Britain still had a presence,” said Brent O’Neill, who manages Great Falls Park on the Potomac. “He took a long trip to document the viability of it.”
Washington was optimistic about the project, but the river resisted. In its upper reaches, falls, rocks and shallows hindered navigation. Financing was a problem. And railroads trumped canals almost as soon as they were built.
“It’s a good thing he was wrong,” said Joel Achenbach, author of “The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West.” “Had Washington been correct, the Potomac might now be an industrial river, more like the Ohio.”
Instead, the Potomac runs through a landscape that is largely rural and sometimes remote. It passes through small towns, suburbs and cities as it flows through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.
Overall, the Potomac and its shorelines are a beloved place for adventure and retreat. Follow Washington’s trail and you will find places that evoke the ways he experienced the river more than 200 years ago.
Early years on the river
From birth, Washington entered a world in which water, and specifically the Potomac, connected people and carried commerce.
He was born on Feb. 22, 1732, in a house that overlooked Pope’s Creek, less than a mile from the Potomac on Virginia’s Northern Neck. Now, crushed oyster shells mark its foundation in the grass. The house, small by today’s standards, was once the seat of a plantation where approximately 60 enslaved workers raised 10–15 acres of tobacco each year.
Today, the site is preserved as the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. A Memorial House and other structures recreate a colonial plantation, complete with heritage livestock. The land is bordered with woods, and a pleasant trail includes a long footbridge that hovers low over the marsh.
Washington lived at Pope’s Creek for just four years before moving upstream. His family relocated to a one-and-a-half story house on another Potomac property that had been owned by the Washingtons since the 1600s. It was called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, and it was a magnificent site.
In a few years, Washington moved to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River. But as a young man, he would return and transform the property at Little Hunting Creek into his famous sprawling estate, Mount Vernon.
The white mansion stands on a bluff with the Potomac River wrapped around its base. An expanse of trees on the opposite shore partly includes Piscataway Park — formerly tribal land that the Piscataway people still cherish.
The view enjoyed from Washington’s piazza has been saved repeatedly from development.
John Marshall, manager of guest relations, can’t imagine Mount Vernon without it. “Over and over again, when I ask people what they remember most about Mount Vernon, it’s the spectacular view,” he said.
As a result, most visitors think that Washington was drawn here by the scenery. “Yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s also very practical,” Marshall said.
Marshall strolled the sole pier at the foot of the estate and explained that the original 10-mile shoreline had been lined with wharfs. Washington dealt in crops, whiskey, and fish. Every year, enslaved workers hauled in about 1.5 million pounds of herring over a seven-week period.
“Starting in March or April, whatever your job was on this plantation, you were now a fisherman,” Marshall said.
Washington wrote, “The whole shore in short is one entire fishery.”
Washington was living at Mount Vernon, enjoying his retirement from the Continental Army, when he began to champion Potomac navigation projects in earnest.
His vision was directly connected to his first job as a 16-year-old surveyor traveling with George William Fairfax to the Virginia frontier.
Along the way, they stopped in what is now Berkeley Springs, WV. Here, water emerges from patches of sand in gently bubbling springs that maintain a constant temperature of 74 degrees and are said to have healing qualities. American Indians had been visiting the springs for countless years, and leading colonial families were beginning to notice them too.
On March 18, 1748, Washington “took the water.”
“They would dig out the sand and line the hole with rocks to make a kind of soaking tub,” said Laura Smith of Travel Berkeley Springs.
Washington made return visits and helped incorporate the town in 1776. He bought two lots.
When the town was incorporated, Virginia decreed that the spring water would always be free to use. Over the years, bathhouses and hotels have been built and rebuilt, and a few remain to give a quaint atmosphere to the small park at the town’s center.
One bathhouse is fully operational. Outdoor springs and soaking areas are open too, along with a re-creation of “George Washington’s Bathtub” — a highly popular photo op.
Washington spent much of the next few years traveling the Potomac backcountry. At 22, he canoed more than 100 miles between Cumberland, MD, and Harpers Ferry, WV, and came through the headwater region several times during the French and Indian War. He used his earnings to purchase land in the Potomac frontier and along the Ohio River, too.
“Washington was one of the largest landowners in the country,” Achenbach said. “He hoped to make money by leasing the land, but it was so remote and had so few settlers. They didn’t recognize his ownership. They weren’t thrilled to see him riding up.”
Washington was also deeply concerned that the taciturn settlers he encountered might break away from the newly formed United States which, as of yet, weren’t so tightly united. Again, Washington looked to the river. What would be the best river to connect the west and east? “From personal experience, he felt it was the Potomac,” Achenbach said.
The Patowmack Company
The Potomac is wide as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay, and ocean-going ships were calling there as soon as Europeans arrived. But the middle and upper portions of the river are changeable and often treacherous. They are not particularly deep. To the modern eye, it’s hard to share Washington’s vision.
But the boats Washington had in mind were much smaller than today’s standard cargo carriers, or even those on the 18th-century Chesapeake. He’d traveled the Potomac by canoe.
“The world looked different to someone who grew up in the era of canoes,” Achenbach said. “You could take cargo of some kind, say furs, on a flat boat or canoe a long distance on a river. And there wasn’t a huge amount of interior cargo moving. So for his day, the Potomac seemed plenty deep enough.”
“Success to the navigation of the Potomac!” was said to be a common toast at Mount Vernon.
In 1784, Washington took the helm of the Patowmack Company, which began to build “skirting” canals on the Virginia shore. They were located at five trouble spots: Great Falls, Little Falls and Seneca Falls in what is now the Washington metropolitan area, and Shenandoah Falls and House Falls near Harpers Ferry.
The work at Great Falls was by far the most difficult and took the longest. “They had to blast through bedrock,” O’Neill said. “It was one of the first uses of black powder in America for a public works project and was considered very dangerous.”
Remnants of the locks and their support structures are still visible.
When Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1799, work was still under way. The canals operated until 1830 under constant financial stress. Like the C&O Canal on the Maryland shore, the Patowmack Company projects required enormous resources and had a fairly short lifetime. Finally, the rise of the railroad let places like the Seneca Bypass fade into the woods.
But one of Washington’s riverside projects created an enormous legacy. He argued that the nation’s capital belonged — where else? — along the Potomac. Once his colleagues agreed, he was asked to select the location.
“If he came back today, I don’t think he’d be shocked at the scale of what’s happened here,” Achenbach said. “He was planning for something big.”
Potomac lets you follow in George Washington’s footsteps or his wake
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument: This site, near Colonial Beach, VA, includes a re-created Memorial House and farm buildings, ranger talks, visitor center exhibits, the Washington family burial ground and a one-mile trail. The Potomac River beach offers a view of the river and the Maryland shore, along with walking, sunbathing and fishing. www.nps.gov/gewa/index.htm
- Mount Vernon: Located 15 miles south of Washington, DC, the site offers more than a mansion tour — enticing landscape, museum with films, waterfront walk, demonstration farm and the tomb of George and Martha Washington. You’ll likely find a crowd, too. Look for visitor tips on the website, and consider arriving by boat. Dock your own or arrive on cruise boats from Washington. www.mountvernon.org
- Berkeley Springs State Park: Located at the center of its namesake town in West Virginia, the indoor bathhouse is open year-round but requires reservations. The outdoor springs, “George Washington’s Bathtub,” and town museum are also accessible year-round with a short stroll around the park. The annual George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration takes place on March 14–16, 2014, with music, readings from Washington’s journal and crafters. www.berkeleyspringssp.com
- The Washington Heritage Trail: The trail crosses West Virginia’s Eastern panhandle from Harpers Ferry to Paw Paw, through places where Washington traveled and purchased land. Explore 18th-century towns, 19th-century industrial sites, Washington family homes and the springs, rivers and mountain of the Cacapon River and Shenandoah Valley. www.washingtonheritagetrail.org
- Great Falls Park: The park, in McLean, VA, is the best place to view remnants of the Patowmack Company canals. All of the structures are part of Washington’s navigation project, not to be confused with the C&O Canal that was built on the Maryland side of the river. The falls, of course, are spectacular. www.nps.gov/grfa/index.htm
- Paddle Trips put you directly on the river. The Seneca Bypass can be paddled as a loop that starts on the Maryland shore at Violette’s Lock, near Potomac, MD, then crosses the river and enters the old canal. Exit the canal and cross the river again to a marked spot on the shore. Make a short portage to a watered portion of the C&O Canal, and paddle back to the lock. As always, gauge your skill level and water conditions. Secure a guide if needed. In West Virginia, River and Trail Outfitters offer a guided “George Washington and Potomac River” tour below Harpers Ferry by raft or canoe. www.rivertrail.com