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Great Falls: The Intersection of Industry, Transportation and Natural Wonder


A major landmark, entwined with the history of transportation and industry in the United States, Great Falls is a breathtaking sight, viewable from both Virginia’s Great Falls Park and from Maryland’s Olmsted Island, part of the C&O Canal Park. At Great Falls, the Potomac River drops 76 feet in under a mile, and passes through Mather Gorge, named for Stephen Tyng Mather, the first director of the National Park Service (NPS).[1] In order for the Potomac to be safely traversed by boats, it was necessary for canals, first the Patowmack Canal and then the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal. Today these two canals are preserved in two national parks: the Virginia side of Great Falls and the Patowmack Canal with the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the Maryland side of the Falls and the C&O Canal in the C&O Canal National Park. Along these canals are numerous historical sites, including the town of Harper’s Ferry, Antietam Battlefield, Glen Echo Park and the Clara Barton House. It was George Washington’s goal to see the budding United States able to navigate the Potomac River all the way out west to the Ohio River Valley, though this was never accomplished, and the C&O Canal ends in Cumberland, 184.5 miles from Milepost 0 in Georgetown.[2]


The area around the Canal and Great Falls have long been a major trading center --- far before European settlers arrived in the area, the Piscataway, Powhatan and Iroquois would trade in the area, as people are believed to have continuously lived in the area for thousands of years.[3] Nolands Ferry and Oldtown, along the C&O Canal both were utilized by Native Americans, including five trails that pass through Oldtown.[4]


In the 1770s, the first canal structure was built by John Ballendine around Little Falls, and the Patowmack Canal Company ten years later to build similar canals at Little Falls, Great Falls and Seneca Falls, to allow boats to “skirt” around the more dangerous sections of the Potomac.[5] Proposed in 1784, the Patowmack Canal company began work in 1785, backed by both Maryland and Virginia, and was not completed until 16 years later.[6] The Patowmack Company in 1792 employed 100 laborers, 10 of which were enslaved, but that number would increase in the coming years, and according to the National Park Service, “the majority of the ruins you see around you at Great Falls Park today were mostly constructed by enslaved laborers.”[7] The Patowmack Canal Company operated until 1828, when it went bankrupt, and turned over its charter and assets to the C&O Canal Company.[8] The land was used for industry throughout the 1800s, then in 1906 Great Falls Amusement Park opened, officially transitioning the area to recreation, rather than commerce. With the 1930 establishment of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, provisions were made to protect the Patowmack Canal and the surrounding area.[9] In 1966, ownership was transferred to the National Park Service, and the site became a National Historic Landmark in 1983.[10]


The history of the Maryland side of Great Falls is intrinsically linked with the history of the C&O Canal, just as the Virginia side is linked with the Patowmack Canal. Construction on the C&O Canal began in 1828 about six miles upstream from Georgetown, which would not be linked into the Canal until later.[11] The first section of the Canal began operating in 1830, though construction would continue, and the first locktender W.W. Fenlon expanded the original lockhouse to operate an inn that stands to this day close to Great Falls.[12] For the coming years, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad and the Canal competed to reach Cumberland first, with the Railroad beating the Canal in 1842. The Canal took another 8 years, and rather than continuing west, the Canal Company began to run as a coal transport company rather than a construction company.[13] The further sections of the Canal are littered with engineering innovations, from the Seneca Creek aqueduct to Paw Paw Tunnel.[14] John Brown was even aided by Lock 33’s lock keeper in his raid of the armory in Harpers Ferry.[15] Several clashes between the Confederacy and Union occurred along the C&O Canal.[16] The armory at Harpers Ferry made it a valuable target, and it would change hands eight times during the War, and the Alexandria Aqueduct was drained to be used as a roadway for the Union military.[17] However, the most significant Civil War battle to occur along the C&O Canal was by far the bloodiest day of the War: the Battle of Antietam in 1862.[18] Parts of the Canal were damaged during the War, including Lock 44 and the Antietam Aqueduct.[19] After the Civil War, the Canal business never quite returned and the shipping trade vanished from Georgetown before World War I.[20] The C&O Canal closed in 1924, after being open for nearly 100 years, and sites became more of a recreational area.[21] Preservation of the Canal as a historical site began with the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal and were reinvigorated in the 1950s when Supreme Court Justice Willaim Douglas and editors from The Washington Post hiked the entire towpath to prevent a parkway from being built in its place.[22] The C&O Canal became a national park in 1971, and has been used by cyclists, hikers, angelers and more since then, despite flooding repeatedly damaging parts of the park.[23]


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the C&O Canal as a national park, and many events are planned, including the 45th Annual C&O Canal Day in Williamsport, the World Canal Conference in Hagerstown, and the Heritage Days Festival in Cumberland in September.[24]

[1] “8 Great Things to Do in Great Falls Virginia and Tips for Your Park Visit,” Fun In Fairfax, VA, McCool Travel, 2019, https://www.funinfairfaxva.com/8-great-things-to-do-in-great-falls-virginia/.; Ranger Aly, “The National Park Service Legacy,” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/mather-gorge/. [2] Ranger Kelly, “The Powerful Potomac,” C&O Canal Trust, August 21, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-8/.; Ranger Aly, “The True Beginning of the Canal,” C&O Canal Trust, May 27, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/tide-lock/.; “The Patowmack Canal,” National Park Service, October 19, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/canal.htm. [3] “Great Falls Timeline,” National Park Service, September 15, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm. [4] Charissa Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,” C&O Canal Trust, accessed July 2021, https://www.canaltrust.org/2020/03/places-for-history-buffs-not-to-miss/. [5] Ranger Kelly, “Centuries of Stories,” C&O Canal Trust, July 18, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-6/. [6] “The Great Falls of the Potomac, Montgomery County,” Maryland Geological Survey, accessed July 2021, http://www.mgs.md.gov/geology/geology_tour/great_falls.html.; “The Patowmack Canal,” National Park Service. [7] “The Patowmack Canal,” National Park Service. [8] “Great Falls Timeline,” National Park Service. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Ranger Rita, “All Roads Lead to Cumberland,” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/cumberland-terminus/.; Ranger Kelly, “Centuries of Stories.; Ranger Aly, “The True Beginning of the Canal”. [12] Ranger Kelly, “Centuries of Stories.; Ranger Aly, “Tourism Since the 1830s,” C&O Canal Trust, August 28, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/great-falls-tavern/. [13] Ranger Rita, “All Roads Lead to Cumberland”.; Ranger Kelly, “A New Deal on Life,” C&O Canal Trust, August 25, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-10/. [14] Ranger Lisa, “The Two-in-One Structure,” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/rileys-lock-seneca/.; Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,”. [15] Ranger Lisa, “Conflict and Change,” C&O Canal Trust, September 04, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/harpers-ferry/. [16] Ranger Hollie, “Between Two Nations,” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/mccoys-ferry/.; Ranger Curt, “Classic Canal Town,” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/williamsport/.; Ranger Geoff, “Popular Crossing,” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/edwards-ferry-and-haunted-house-bend/. [17] Ranger Lisa, “Conflict and Change”.; Ranger Mark, “A Forgotten Connection,” C&O Canal Trust, May 29, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/alexandria-aqueduct/. [18] Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,”. ; Ranger Taylor, “Natural Refuge,” C&O Canal Trust, September 04, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/killiansburg-cave/. [19] Ranger Lisa, “Walking in the Footsteps of Others,” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-44/.; Charissa Hipp, “Experience the Authentic C&O Canal,” C&O Canal Trust, accessed July 2021, https://www.canaltrust.org/2020/04/authentic-canal-experience/. [20] Ranger Mark, “A Forgotten Connection.”; Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,”. [21] “Chesapeake & Ohio Canal,” National Park Service, accessed July 2021, https://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm.; Hipp, “Experience the Authentic C&O Canal”.; Ranger Rita, “A Little Town with a Big History,” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/oldtown/.; Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,”. [22] Ranger Kelly, “A New Deal on Life.”; Hipp, “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss,”. [23] Park Civil Engineer Chuck, “Where Nature's Beauty Caused Trouble,” C&O Canal Trust, August 28, 2014, https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/anglers/.; “2021 Canal Voices Contest,” National Park Service, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/choh/learn/education/2021-canal-voices-contest.htm. [24] “C&O Canal 50th Anniversary Events,” C&O Canal Trust, 2021, https://www.canaltrust.org/plan/co-canal-experience/50th-anniversary-events/.


Bibliography

“2021 Canal Voices Contest.” National Park Service, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/choh/learn/education/2021-canal-voices-contest.htm.

“C&O Canal 50th Anniversary Events.” C&O Canal Trust, 2021. https://www.canaltrust.org/plan/co-canal-experience/50th-anniversary-events/.

“Chesapeake & Ohio Canal,” National Park Service, accessed July 2021, https://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm.

“Eight Great Things to Do in Great Falls Virginia and Tips for Your Park Visit.” Fun In Fairfax, VA, McCool Travel, 2019. https://www.funinfairfaxva.com/8-great-things-to-do-in-great-falls-virginia/.

“The Great Falls of the Potomac, Montgomery County.” Maryland Geological Survey, accessed July 2021. http://www.mgs.md.gov/geology/geology_tour/great_falls.html.

“Great Falls Timeline.” National Park Service, September 15, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm.

Hipp, Charissa. “Experience the Authentic C&O Canal.” C&O Canal Trust, accessed July 2021. https://www.canaltrust.org/2020/04/authentic-canal-experience/.

Hipp, Charissa. “Places for History Buffs Not to Miss.” C&O Canal Trust, accessed July 2021. https://www.canaltrust.org/2020/03/places-for-history-buffs-not-to-miss/.

Park Civil Engineer Chuck. “Where Nature's Beauty Caused Trouble.” C&O Canal Trust, August 28, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/anglers/.

The Patowmack Canal.” National Park Service, October 19, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/canal.htm.

Ranger Aly. “The National Park Service Legacy.” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/mather-gorge/.

Ranger Aly. “Tourism Since the 1830s.” C&O Canal Trust, August 28, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/great-falls-tavern/.

Ranger Aly. “The True Beginning of the Canal.” C&O Canal Trust, May 27, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/tide-lock/.

Ranger Curt. “Classic Canal Town.” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/williamsport/.

Ranger Geoff. “Popular Crossing.” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/edwards-ferry-and-haunted-house-bend/.

Ranger Hollie. “Between Two Nations.” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/mccoys-ferry/.

Ranger Kelly. “Centuries of Stories.” C&O Canal Trust, July 18, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-6/.

Ranger Kelly. “A New Deal on Life.” C&O Canal Trust, August 25, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-10/.

Ranger Kelly. “The Powerful Potomac.” C&O Canal Trust, August 21, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-8/.

Ranger Lisa. “Conflict and Change.” C&O Canal Trust, September 04, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/harpers-ferry/.

Ranger Lisa. “The Two-in-One Structure.” C&O Canal Trust, September 03, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/rileys-lock-seneca/.

Ranger Lisa. “Walking in the Footsteps of Others.” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/lockhouse-44/.

Ranger Mark. “A Forgotten Connection.” C&O Canal Trust, May 29, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/alexandria-aqueduct/.

Ranger Rita. “All Roads Lead to Cumberland.” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/cumberland-terminus/.

Ranger Rita. “A Little Town with a Big History.” C&O Canal Trust, September 05, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/oldtown/.

Ranger Taylor. “Natural Refuge.” C&O Canal Trust, September 04, 2014. https://www.canaltrust.org/discoveryarea/killiansburg-cave/.