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POTOMAC: America's River

From Washington and Jefferson to the Army Corps of Engineers, everyone had grandiose plans to tame the Potomac. Fortunately for us, they all failed

Source:  Copyright 2002, Washington Post
Date:  May 5, 2002
Byline:  Joel Achenbach
Original URL: Status DEAD

The American Legion Bridge is a featureless and purely utilitarian slab of steel and concrete that carries the Beltway across the Potomac River gorge just a few miles south of Great Falls. It is best known for its traffic jams.

The bridge would be considered a scenic spot if you could see much of anything and if taking your eye off the road did not invite instant death. Only distant parts of the gorge are visible, because Jersey walls block much of the view. There could be an ocean liner down below, or a hydroelectric plant, or a herd of bison, and you'd have no idea.

There is no bike path, no pedestrian walkway. There is a modest sign saying "Potomac River," but there is little hint that the river below is one of the most evocative, dangerous, divisive, rambunctious, history-saturated rivers in the United States, sometimes called the "Nation's River," a waterway once described by the Department of Interior as "physically and spiritually a national landscape, filled with national memories and meanings." Just keep your eyes on the road, buster.

A clever motorist crossing from Maryland into Virginia can exit the Beltway at Georgetown Pike, zigzag through residential neighborhoods, and eventually come to a cul-de-sac where a small sign says "Potomac Heritage Trail." This lightly used path runs 10 miles downstream to Rosslyn. The trail descends a steep slope and quickly darts beneath the massive, moaning steel expanse of the aforementioned, aforecursed American Legion Bridge.

The concrete footings of the bridge march stoically across the river, devoid of flourish or finesse, charmless but functional. It's not really a bridge at all, but rather a road with some air beneath it.

As you step out of its shadow and hike down the trail, you find yourself in a shockingly natural place. There are no houses here. There are just trees and bushes and rocks. A nearby cave shelters someone's belongings, but the someone is missing. The population is dominated by great blue herons, ducks, geese and, to judge by the gnawed trees, beavers. It's incredible: You've found solitude -- peace at last! -- and if it weren't for the deafening white noise of the traffic, the jets overhead flying toward Reagan National, your cell phone chirping, you'd think you were Daniel Boone in the howling wilderness.

For many people, the Potomac is like the Washington Monument, something to visit only when relatives are in town. There are locals who are fuzzy on which direction it flows, who admit they have not the slightest clue where it comes from. That said, the Potomac is hardly obscure. In springtime, when the shad are running, fishermen swarm the rocks near Chain Bridge. As a refuge for migratory birds, the Potomac can be overrun by unusually cheerful people with binoculars and sensible shoes. On any given Saturday or Sunday the C&O Canal towpath turns into a superhighway for cyclists shouting, "On your left!" Downriver the Potomac still has crabbers; upriver the hunters are thick among the islands in the stream.

As metropolitan Washington grows denser, crazier, more suffocating, the valley of the Potomac seems increasingly green; just since 1998 the number of visitors to the C&O Canal National Historical Park has doubled. At Jack's Boats, a little country-style boathouse under Key Bridge, business has boomed since the addition a few years ago of kayaks. Some of the best whitewater in the mid-Atlantic is right here in the middle of the megalopolis. One afternoon at Little Falls, a kayaker, Ken Tarkin, told me he'd spent the day at Tysons Corner in his office, staring into a computer terminal. "I need to come out here to get back to reality," he said. This was possibly the first time anyone had made such a comment about a location inside the Beltway.

James "Doc" Taliaferro, who lives on Sycamore Island, about two miles upriver from Chain Bridge, can stand on his dock and see virtually no sign of civilization: "When these trees are in green you could be in upstate Maine here."

You think: How is this possible?

How did this river survive when so many great American rivers have been trashed?

Why is it so nice?

Therein lies an ironic tale. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had grand ambitions to turn the river into a liquid highway to the West. The Potomac was supposed to become an industrial corridor. Throughout its history, engineers dreamed grandiose plans for the river -- canals, riverside parkways, hydroelectric plants, dams galore. And yet the Potomac somehow got away, surviving all the plans to improve it, to make it useful. Today the river is just . . . a river.

This is a triumph of conservation, marred by only one detail: The river was saved in part because nature is increasingly an auxiliary feature of our lives, something we experience through hobbies and weekend outings, if at all. The river is often quiet and serene because, at core, we're not a nation of canoers. There's no money in paddling.

We're not down by the river, we're up there, on that Beltway -- stuck in traffic.

'Location, Location, Location'

There are many Potomacs. The crabber's tidewater Potomac is a different river from the kayaker's whitewater Potomac. The Potomac is not a single watercourse but a network of H2O -- rivers, creeks, marshes, places where water seeps from the earth. The watershed drains parts of four states and forms an arc, with the apex in Pennsylvania. One river promoter, Harry Belin of Georgetown, calls the watershed "the Fertile Crescent of American history."

The geography of the Potomac is the paramount fact of its history. It is a natural route west. It is trans-Appalachian, blasting through mountain ridges in a stunning demonstration that, given time, water is stronger than rock.

The North Branch begins in West Virginia near the southwestern tip of the Maryland panhandle, 397 miles from the river's gaping mouth at Chesapeake Bay. The young river slides along the base of the Allegheny Plateau, heading northeast, then pivots at Cumberland, Md., heads southeast, gathers the South Branch, jogs north, loops through the Paw Paw Bends, darts and slices its way through one mountain after another, and finally, at Harpers Ferry, takes strength from the water of the Shenandoah River and blasts through the Blue Ridge. It flows across the Piedmont in a leisurely fashion until the bottom drops out at Great Falls. The river carves its way through a 13-mile gorge, funneling all its water through the sluice of Little Falls, until, just above Key Bridge, it suddenly broadens into a tidal estuary, a gnarled finger of the Chesapeake, itself the drowned valley of the Susquehanna River. The rhythms of the Atlantic Ocean are felt at Georgetown, a couple of hundred miles from the Virginia Capes.

When the first humans arrived on the Potomac -- something like 12,000 years ago -- they found a fish supermarket. Anadromous fish, like shad, blueback herring and alewife, live in salt water but spawn in fresh. They make their run in early spring, when other sources of food are scarce. "At the leanest time of year, Mother Nature suddenly provides you with millions of pounds of protein on the fin," points out National Park Service archaeologist Stephen Potter. A recent excavation at Fletcher's Boathouse in D.C. shows signs of a significant fishing village about 4,000 years ago.

"Location, location, location. It was as true in prehistory as it is now," Potter says.

The Virginia colonists took full advantage of the tidewater rivers, building their plantations along every indentation of the James, York, Rappahannock and Potomac. Down the Potomac sailed thousands of hogsheads of tobacco; up the river came goods from London and kidnapped Africans.

Not enough labor, lots of cheap land: These facts dominated early American life, and helped create a society based on the twin pillars of tobacco and slavery. Tobacco exhausted land, and planters were always hungry for more. The supply seemed infinite. Never mind that native tribes lived here already: In the eyes of the white man, an entire continent was up for grabs.

Inexorably, the Virginians went upriver.

George Washington Schlepped Here

Among those most enchanted by the Potomac was a fourth-generation American living on a tidewater plantation just south of the new town of Alexandria.

The young George Washington always felt drawn to the frontier. No one of his generation knew more about the geography of British America. As a lad of 16, he worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax, sleeping under the stars out on the South Branch of the Potomac in what was still Indian country (and remains, to this day, a remote and rugged section of West Virginia). On an ill-fated military expedition to the Ohio River he helped trigger the French and Indian War. He sought wealth through land, buying wilderness tracts where no tree had ever seen an ax. Many Europeans who visited America were repelled by the endless forest, but Washington kept plunging back into it, smelling its potential.

When Washington looked at the Potomac, he didn't see "nature," he didn't see "a place to canoe," he saw something supremely useful, a tool for unlocking the riches beyond the mountains. Providence, Washington told a friend, had "dealt her favors to us with so profuse a hand." And then he added: "Would to God we may have the wisdom enough to improve them."

The Potomac was a great river -- but he could make it better.

Washington was born on this river, and learned to conduct himself as a gentleman in the elegant mansions of Potomac planters. The wharf connected him to London, to Boston, to Charleston; rivers were the highways of his world. In the 18th century, says geographer Peirce Lewis, "if you get away from a navigable river or the sea, you might as well be on the face of the moon."

After marrying into a considerable sum of money, Washington expanded Mount Vernon, eventually owning five farms and 10 miles of riverfront. When he enlarged the house into a proper mansion, he added a piazza, a porch on steroids, with 18-foot-high columns running the length of the facade. Washington dug out portions of the bluff, and knocked down trees, to improve the sightlines from the piazza to the Potomac.

"The river and its view are monumentally important to Washington," Dennis Pogue, associate director for preservation at Mount Vernon, said one morning recently as he surveyed the Potomac from the lawn of the mansion. (Speaking of Washington in present tense is the norm here; it's as though he's going to ride up on his horse, Nelson, any minute.)

Washington once wrote, "No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this. It lyes in a high, dry country 300 miles by water from the Sea and, as you will see by the plan, on one of the finest Rivers in the world."

That's a rare lyrical passage from Washington. He was no poet. He was more of an accountant at heart, a pragmatist, someone interested in details, in data, in things that might be useful. After describing the sublime nature of the river, Washington added that, in its various inlets and coves, "an inexhaustible fund of rich mud can be drawn as a manure."

Useful mud!

Several times he explored the headwaters of the Potomac and the Ohio, looking for a way to connect them, a geographical shortcut, a route across the 3,000-foot-high Allegheny spine. Once, on September 15, 1784, he was caught in the middle of nowhere, in what is now West Virginia, many leagues from the nearest inn, as a driving rainstorm pummeled his small traveling party. He had "no other shelter or cover than my cloak," he wrote in his diary. But he did not belabor his suffering, and immediately returned to the subject of geography: "It may not be amiss to observe that Sandy Creek has a fall within a few miles of its mouth of 40 feet, & being rapid besides, affords no navigation at all."

Gen. Washington got it into his mind that the channel of the Potomac could be made navigable up to Cumberland simply by removing some rocks from the riverbed and constructing canals to skirt the falls. In 1785 he founded the Patowmack Company (consistent spelling is not a hallmark of the river's history), dedicated to improving navigation on the river.

The cynics among us could argue that Washington had selfish motives. If the river was improved, the value of his own western lands and riverfront properties would increase, as he himself acknowledged in a letter to Jefferson. Washington owned about 12,000 acres in the Potomac basin and more than 30,000 acres of prime bottomland along the Ohio River. He was, from an early age, a land speculator.

But Washington's Potomac obsession also had a nationalistic element. Under the treaty that ended the Revolution, the United States encompassed hundreds of millions of acres beyond the mountains, unreliably mapped and increasingly settled by restless Americans. Washington had a vision of the United States as a great and powerful nation, but he feared that geographical obstacles would foil that destiny. The mountain barrier could alienate the western settlers from the eastern United States. There were other imperial powers still on the continent: the British in Canada and the Spanish in New Orleans, Florida and west of the Mississippi.

"No well informed Mind need be told," Washington wrote during his 1784 journey to the West, "that the flanks and rear of the United territory are possessed by other powers, and formidable ones too -- nor how necessary it is to apply the cement of interest to bind all parts of it together, by one indissolvable band . . .

"The Western Settlers -- from my own observation -- stand as it were on a pivet -- the touch of a feather would almost incline them either way."

Thomas Jefferson shared Washington's vision of the Potomac, and reduced the supremacy of the Potomac to a scientific fact:

"The Ohio, and it's branches which head up against the Patowmac," Jefferson informed James Madison in 1784, "affords the shortest water communication by 500 miles of any which can ever be got between the Western waters and the Atlantic, and of course" -- here the savvy Jefferson was more blunt than Washington -- "promises us almost a monopoly of the Western and Indian trade."

By "us" he meant Virginians. The Paris peace treaty of 1783 declared the colonies to be "independent states." Washington was already worried that New York would build a canal from the Hudson to Lake Erie. Jefferson informed Madison that the Pennsylvanians were plotting to build a canal connecting Philadelphia with the Susquehanna.

"If we do not push this matter immediately," Jefferson wrote, "they will be beforehand with us and get possession of the commerce."

The race was on.

A Dangerous Character

It almost worked. The Patowmack Company's workers built a heroic, mile-long canal that skirted Great Falls, and it was the engineering marvel of its day. The canal's final descent to the level of the river below the falls required an unprecedented use of blasting powder to create a notch in the solid rock.

Tolls trickled in. One year the company made a little money. Ultimately it was a money pit. The river refused to cooperate. Only during high water could boats get up and down the river. For all its gentleness and grandeur and easy navigability as it flowed by Mount Vernon, the Potomac above the falls remained a rapid, rocky, extremely unreliable river, prone to disastrous floods and droughts.

When French naturalist Constantin Volney visited the rapids at Harpers Ferry in 1804, he wrote, "The waters fret and boil up around these obstacles, which, for two miles, form dangerous falls or rapids. They were covered, when I saw them, with the fragments of a bateau, which had been wrecked a few days before, by which sixty barrels of flour had been lost."

He then editorialized, in the classic dismissive French way, "The temerity of the American navigators renders accidents of this kind as frequent in their rivers as on the ocean."

After a team of commissioners appointed by the governors of Maryland and Virginia traveled down the Potomac in 1822, they reported that the river had obstructions to navigation every half mile, on average. They spared no adjectives in summarizing the "evils" of the river:

". . . Its dangerous character, arising from the wildness of the torrent, and the suddenness of its courses and meanders -- having worn its devious way, in the lapse of ages, through countless ridges of rocks and mountains; and, in consequence of huge fragments of rocks and large loose stones, the remains of the wasted mountains, scattered thickly . . ."

And so on. The demon river would never be tamed, they declared. Instead, they suggested something even more dramatic: a 360-mile continuous canal that would parallel the riverbed and, upon reaching the mountain interior, keep going, lifting boats over the Alleghenies and dropping them safely on the other side. So began the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal -- "the Great National Project."

Nothing like that had ever been built, but this was the Age of Progress, when big men had big dreams, when maps were showing new canals all over America, including in New York, where this ditch called the Erie Canal had dropped tenfold the price of shipping goods from the Great Lakes. When Washington talked of bringing navigation "to almost every man's door," he was anticipating the age of interstate highways and secondary streets and cul-de-sacs, only his roads were liquid. It was a two-boats-in-every-garage kind of idea.

The C&O Canal had its ceremonial opening on July 4, 1828, near Little Falls, when President John Quincy Adams took a shovel and ominously struck a root. That same day, near Baltimore, Charles Carroll inaugurated the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The rap on the canal is that it was instantly obsolete, that it couldn't compete with the railroad, that it was just a failure from the get-go. During a walk on the towpath near the Monocacy River recently, I encountered a cyclist who, gesturing toward the canal, asked, "Did it ever have water in it?" The canal, in fact, had a heyday, even after it lost the race with the railroad to reach the western waters. The canal never reached the Ohio, stopping at Cumberland -- it's really the Georgetown & Cumberland Canal -- but it did create a functioning flat-water route along the Potomac for 184.5 miles. It's the mid-Atlantic's version of the Great Wall of China, with 74 locks, 11 aqueducts, scores of culverts, and a tunnel at Paw Paw that carries the canal 3,118 feet through a mountain. By the 1870s the C&O had spawned a boisterous trade involving 500 canal boats and 4,000 mules, mostly hauling coal.

The C&O had its tragic side as well. Hundreds of canal construction workers died of cholera in an epidemic near Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 1832. The flood of 1889 bankrupted the company and shattered the lives of canal workers; the flood of 1924 left it in ruins. From the start, the canal was self-destructively ambitious -- it was broader and deeper than any other canal, and cost millions more than anticipated. (The engineers claimed that they were not building something for "the present day or century," but rather "to endure for all time.")

The ultimate problem was that the Potomac really wasn't such a providential route for a canal to the West. To build a canal over the Allegheny Mountains was preposterous. The Erie had the better route, taking advantage of a natural gap in the mountains in Upstate New York.

Drinking tea on his piazza, Washington had been seduced by the river. The man who did everything so boldly, who'd been so instrumental in creating a new nation upon the continent, overestimated his ability to extend this arm of the sea nearly to the Ohio country.

But Washington was right that the country needed the "cement of interest," and his Potomac scheme had a profound historic ramification. While hatching his visionary canal, he realized that the leaders of Maryland and Virginia needed to get together to cooperate on the river's govern-ance. They met at his home in March 1785. The discussions made clear that the states needed to find a way to work together rather than operate as 13 separate nations. The so-called Mount Vernon Convention had a snowball effect, leading to a larger gathering of five state delegations at Annapolis in 1786, which led, within a year, to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Washington never quite got the river he wanted. He did get his great and powerful nation.

After the Flood

Vic Jenkins remembers a Potomac that no longer exists. He farmed the river -- farmed islands right in the middle of the stream. As it flows through the Blue Ridge and across the Piedmont, the river channel is braided, forming large, flat islands with ancient soil washed down over millions of years from the Appalachians. That soil proved useful.

Jenkins was born in 1919, and grew up on Heater's Island, just downstream from Point of Rocks, about 45 miles upriver from Washington. Vic's father, Enos, leased the island, 188 acres, and grew wheat and corn. Vic and his seven siblings led a Huck Finn existence, fishing, swimming, digging up arrowheads, catching grasshoppers and selling them to fishermen for five cents a dozen. He remembers seeing the boats hauled by mules on the C&O Canal along the Maryland bank.

In winter the kids could walk to school over the ice; they got to stay home when, as he puts it, "the ice was running." One winter the ice was so treacherous the family was trapped for a month.

When Vic was 8 years old, his family moved to another island, Mason's, downstream near Whites Ferry. Vic's father had bought the entire island for the nifty price of $10,000. Enos Jenkins built a two-story brick house at the island's center, and built an artificial hill out of stones and dirt so the livestock would have a place to go during floods. But nothing prepared the family for the flood of March 18-19, 1936. When the family was finally rescued by the Coast Guard, the water had reached the second floor and the Jenkinses had to climb into the boat from the roof of the porch. Six hundred barrels of corn washed away, and nine horses, and 78 sheep.

The next year, the river flooded again, and this time the result was tragic.

When a Washington Post reporter and photographer flew over the river on April 27, 1937, they reported "sights of panic and despair as the raging waters trapped countless residents of the rural countryside . . . Small towns were completely inundated. Entire buildings, torn from their foundations by the rising Potomac, floated downstream, bobbing like corks on the crest."

Vic and his dad tried to ferry the sheep to shore on a barge. The barge became unmoored and floated downstream. Vic and his father pursued in a skiff, but the skiff capsized. Vic scrambled from the water onto the barge, then hauled his father out of the water by his belt. A neighbor in a boat took Vic to the Virginia bank, and he went to the neighbors' house to change. He didn't see his father capsize again in the skiff and disappear in the raging Potomac. Fourteen months later, downstream, on Harrison's Island, someone saw a shoe poking up through the gravel, and discovered that the shoe was attached to the remains of Enos Jenkins.

Vic took me to Mason's Island and showed me the old house. It has collapsed, nothing left but brick. The well has run dry, and is a forbidding shaft in the earth. "This makes me sick," Vic said, but lightly, with a laugh.

The island has not a single stalk of corn these days. Few people farm the river anymore, even though the soil remains rich, the ground soft. Farming largely disappeared with restrictions on tilling and the use of chemicals.

"The '36 flood, about 10 o'clock that night the water rushed through that door. We stayed upstairs all night. It was four inches over the top of that window."

Were they scared?

"Not really," said the old man. "We were used to water, I guess."

His grandson, Kevin Jenkins, pointed out something that I'd noticed only subconsciously. Whenever his grandfather talked about the flood that killed Enos Jenkins he never really talked about the water. He always talked about the prop that sheered, the boat that flipped, the chance accidents. "It wasn't the river," Kevin said. "It was a series of events. There's no resentment of the river."

If your first memory is of the river, if you live your entire life on it, it becomes like the air. Which gives the answer to the question of why, even after his father drowned, Vic Jenkins continued to live on Mason's Island, and got married, and had a child there, and stuck it out until someone made a nice offer on the property in 1951. That's when he finally moved to a house on high, dry land, one with electricity and indoor plumbing and a phone.

"It was a pretty good life," said Vic. "We didn't know nothing better."

Vic Jenkins is 83 now and runs a kennel. Heater's Island and Mason's Island are pretty much vacant except for wild animals and hunters. From a distance you'd never know anything had ever happened there.

Debris From Forgotten Lives

The river is still useful as a source of drinking water and as a place to dump sewage or the hot water discharged from power plants. But there was a time when water itself was a crucial source of power. The Potomac Valley had thousands of mills that harnessed the energy unleashed by water responding to gravity. In Shepherdstown, a little stream known as the Town Run once had more than a dozen mills on it.

"In a single tributary to the Potomac," wrote Frederick Gutheim in his seminal 1949 book The Potomac, "you could find paper mills, powder mills, nail mills, flour mills, wooden mills, linseed-oil mills, a flax mill, sawmills, and fulling mills, as well as the omnipresent distillery."

The coming of steam engines, coal mines, oil, electricity, all the various technologies of modern industry, reduced the importance of tumbling water. Mills went out of business. And when the canal failed, Gutheim declared, the Potomac ceased to be important on the national scale, and became merely a "regional artery."

Many towns on the river have survived by becoming museum exhibits, like Harpers Ferry. Shepherdstown thrives thanks to a college, Civil War buffs and affluent visitors in search of an "authentic" small town that's not so authentic as to forbid gourmet restaurants. Cumberland, deep in the Alleghenies, once was geographically blessed, the perfect jumping-off point from the Potomac to points farther west in the Ohio country. Today it is the city that time forgot, trying to reverse its decline by building resorts and museums and hoping that tourists will find it.

The Potomac is full of these places that peaked long ago. The C&O Canal is the most famous ruin, but there are also lime kilns hiding in the bushes, crumbling grist mills, abandoned gold mines, mysterious foundations, solitary chimneys and, of course, the old fish weirs, called "Indian fish traps," in the bed of the river itself. The old stone-cutting mill at Seneca has a Stonehenge vibe, but in midsummer almost vanishes amid the vegetation.

When you explore the river today, you sense that much is hidden beneath the surface. Secret histories. Debris from forgotten lives. Ghosts.

Betty Burchell, an amateur historian who came to the area in 1943, showed me some ghostly places near Lock 10: a road leading nowhere; a barn-size mound of stones overgrown with vines; a concrete foundation that Burchell said was once a store. I followed while Burchell tromped in her sneakers through mucky water and spongy turf and across the cobbled bed of a nearly dry stream channel. She pointed out a half-submerged wall of stones that may have helped firm up the riverbank for a row of long-gone cabins. A certain Mr. Swainson once lived on this spot.

"He had cows and chickens and pigs, wandering all over the place, up by the lockhouse," Burchell said.

Needless to say, there were no more cows, chickens or pigs here, no Mr. Swainson, no commerce, no canal boats or lockkeepers.

What would Swainson think, I asked, if he were alive today and could see this place?

"He would say it's all grown over," she said. "It might make him sad."

Dam Fever

After the floods of 1936 and 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers, always eager to make things useful, developed a new plan for the Potomac. Dam it all, the corps said.

A 105-foot-high dam at Little Falls would create an eight-mile lake going back to the base of Great Falls. A 119-foot-high dam, just above Great Falls, would create a lake all the way back to Harpers Ferry. A dam at Harpers Ferry would flood the lower town. No fewer than 14 dams would turn the Potomac into a string of lakes.

The National Park Service, meanwhile, revived George Washington's dream of a Potomac route to the west. The river itself hadn't worked, and the canal along the river hadn't worked -- so why not a road? The Park Service, which acquired the canal in 1938, decided to build a highway -- make that a "parkway" -- on top of, or paralleling, the canal, all the way from Washington to Cumberland.

"The automobile was sort of sacred," recalls Gilbert Gude, a former congressman from Maryland and author of two books on the Potomac. He notes that Frank Lloyd Wright drew up a plan for a road to spiral to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, where motorists could enjoy fine dining in a restaurant. Nature was never preserved for its own sake; it required human access. The Park Service was in the business of serving people, of getting them to the parks and monuments. A strip of asphalt along the river (and on both banks, in some places) seemed the right approach, especially if combined with parks, marinas, boat ramps and other recreational facilities. In 1946, a lawyer for the Park Service said there was "no legal objection, in my opinion, to filling the canal with dirt . . . as a step toward its conversion into a parkway."

What happened next is local lore. Even though there weren't "environmentalists" in the 1950s, there were "conservationists." One of them was William O. Douglas, a Supreme Court justice, who lived near Fletcher's Boathouse and took frequent walks on the towpath. When the Washington Post editorial board endorsed the parkway plan, saying it "would enable more people to enjoy beauties now seen by very few," Douglas responded with a letter inviting the Post editors to hike along the towpath. They did, amid much publicity, and partially reversed their stance. In the end, only a small portion of the planned road (now called the Clara Barton Parkway) was built.

In effect, Douglas and others had discovered an entirely new use for the river: It would be an antidote to civilization. It would be a sedative for a hyperactive, manic society. In his letter to The Post, he wrote, "It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door -- a wilderness area where man can be alone with his thoughts, a sanctuary where he can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and sound of horns."

And so the river became, quite specifically, and almost medicinally, the thing that was not the city.

Grand Delusions

Along came a new idea for increasing the river's usefulness: Make the whole thing a national park.

The plan got its start in 1965, when the Potomac had grown notorious as a sewer. President Lyndon Johnson instructed Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to find a way to make the river a model of conservation. Udall decided that the river should become the "Potomac National River," with federal parkland along both sides of the river all the way to Cumberland.

Political geography once again interceded. The Potomac, which had once served as the border between the Union and the Confederacy, now flowed between the generally liberal, slow-growth state of Maryland and the more conservative, pro-business states of West Virginia and Virginia. The latter felt that the "Potomac National River" was just a federal land grab. Even Justice Douglas thought Udall had fallen victim to delusions of grandeur. The conservationists, thinking strategically, rallied behind a slightly more modest proposal to turn the C&O Canal into a national historical park. That idea sailed through Congress in 1971. In effect, Udall's Potomac National River had been split lengthwise.

The odd result is that the towpath is arguably more prominent than the river itself. The towpath gets all the buzz. The towpath is the perfect route through nature for gear-intensive yuppie bikers and parents with baby joggers and city folks amazed by something that's like a road but has no cars. Jill Drupa, who with her husband leases one of the old lockhouses, says, "It's crazy -- you feel bad for the cyclists, because you see families four across, with the dog, and the stroller." Round about June, she says, the long-distance runners start galloping past the lockhouse in packs, training for the Marine Corps Marathon.

Who says the towpath is a relic of the past?

A Dream of Wilderness

Compared with its pre-Columbian state, the river is polluted and silted. The valley is overrun with invasive species -- kudzu, garlic mustard, humans in subdivisions. Chicken farms pollute the South Branch in West Virginia. During heavy storms, untreated sewage from older parts of the District flows into the Potomac, Rock Creek and the Anacostia. Old-timers say the fishing is nothing like it used to be (and the fish in places can contain PCBs). Styrofoam cups, plastic soda bottles and soggy tennis balls collect in notches of the riverbank as though magnetically attracted.

At times of low water -- such as during the current drought -- you can't help but notice that the river is a bit . . . sudsy.

And yet it doesn't stink anymore, and paddlers don't get infections. The Potomac is positively sparkling compared with its condition in the mid-1960s, when one District resident, having fallen into the river while sailing, was asked by a Coast Guard official, "Have you had your tetanus shot?"

Gude, the former congressman, says, "In the late '60s, if you took a plane and flew down the river, for 50 miles below Washington it'd be green from the algae, from the sewage at Blue Plains."

On the North Branch, deep in the mountains, the river was completely dead, all life extinguished by the acids of the coal mines.

"It was terrible," recalls Harold Gray, now 94, who in 1946 paddled down the river with his brother Ralph in a trip written up for National Geographic. "When we passed Cumberland, Md., we came to the biggest tributary, which was the open sewer of Cumberland, raw sewage pouring into the river. It took us 15 to 20 miles to get past that smelly, polluted water."

Things began to turn around in the 1970s. Blue Plains improved. Congress passed the Clean Water Act.

Today the river looks good. Potomac Conservancy executive director Matt Logan calls the Potomac between Great Falls and Georgetown "the wildest urban river landscape of any city in the world."

But it's not truly "wild." Nature isn't fully in charge; this is still a regulated space, a trammeled piece of Earth. You might say it's the prototype of a manufactured wilderness.

William Cronon, a maverick historian, has argued that "wilderness" is a human construct, a romantic, idealized place with no trace of human beings. Early Americans had no illusions about the wilderness. The first white visitors considered wilderness to be a moral affront. They wanted it conquered, opened up, farmed, for the good of Christian civilization.

"The dream of an unworked natural landscape," Cronon has written, "is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living -- urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die."

The Potomac fits the Cronon model. The "wild" stretches of the river seem almost like an exhibit in a museum.

The National Park Service has removed 2,000 houses, cabins, fishing shacks, trailers and other "improvements" from the river valley. Doug Faris, the C&O Canal superintendent, says the park's goal is to "restore the cultural landscape to a period pre-1924," the period before the canal ceased operation.

Which is impossible. The canal is no longer functional. The mills are gone, and the stores, and the taverns and brothels, and even the water is gone for most of the canal's length.

What is left is not the pre-1924 world, but rather a distinctly 21st-century place: a carefully preserved park with a lovely flat trail through the woods along a river that serves as an oasis of greenery in a metropolis of 5 million people. There are places on the river where, in defiance of all local trends, the number of houses is decreasing. It's not fake, but it is surely a modern-day construct, stripped clean of cultural debris, reserved for politically sanctioned, low-impact activities by visitors on parole from their indoor life. (Not that anyone's complaining! We're just analyzing freely.)

The most common gripe about the river, says John Parsons, an administrator with the National Park Service, is that it's "dull, boring, uninteresting." The river has few "attractions," as they say in the world of theme parks. Tourists can ride a canal boat pulled by mules at Georgetown and Great Falls, but it may be the slowest thrill ride on Earth. Or they can take a fancy dinner cruise on one of the big boats that dock along the waterfront in Southwest D.C. and Alexandria. Campgrounds exist along the C&O, but they tend to be as obscure and as poorly marked as the mountain bunkers of the shadow federal government. That's intentional. Parsons, as a young landscape architect with the Park Service in the 1970s, created a plan to preserve the C&O Canal's intimacy and tranquillity, funneling visitors to places like Great Falls, while limiting parking and access in more primitive areas.

There are no plans, Parsons said recently, to change the Potomac's overall atmosphere, its raw, natural aesthetic. "The river as you see it is what we'll have. That is our vision."

Occasionally someone decides to puncture the illusion of naturalness, as is the case at Scott's Run, a stream flowing through a nature preserve just north of the Beltway in Virginia. The stream culminates in a charming waterfall at the edge of the Potomac. But an informational sign at the entrance points out that the stream banks have been eroded by storm water from "paved surfaces surrounding the many businesses and shopping centers." The sign then delivers the conclusive blow:

"The waterfall of Scott's Run gives a false impression of pristine water. Runoff, sewer line breaks and dumping contribute to higher concentrations of parasites and fecal coliform bacteria which can be hazardous to human health."

(Enjoy your walk.)

Great Expectations

When Carl Linden visits the river, he starts quoting Plato and de Tocqueville, and philosophizing about democracy and the disappearance of heroic national enterprises. He's a political scientist who lives in a Sears Roebuck kit house in Brookmont, on the Maryland side of the river above Little Falls.

"To build a canal along a river that floods so much, it was kind of nuts," he said as we scrambled down the bank near Lock 5. "Bold as hell."

Linden, a retired faculty member at George Washington University, and a former analyst with the CIA, said, "Think of how much focus there is on meeting our physical desires. Think of all the advertisements that play to our desires, our need for drinks, sex, whatever else. Good times. Fashion. De Tocqueville talked about the need for a wise leadership of democracy, that consists of giving people a sense of goals, a vision, that transcend the here and now."

Washington, with his Potomac scheme, had a sense of that, he said.

"A very ambitious project, even though it didn't succeed."

We went to the moon. That was a long time ago. What is the national agenda now? The interstate highways are built. Is our goal these days nothing more glorious than broadband Internet access?

As usual, we had the river and the canal to ourselves. People were at work. We saw one fisherman, two geese, a few dog-walkers.

"There are a hell of a lot of people who don't know the canal exists," Linden said, not really complaining.

People go to Great Falls. They go to Mount Vernon. But what do they see? Do people really know this river? Do they know what they're looking at?

"We've become divorced from it," says Stephen Potter, the archaeologist. "When so much of people's economic livelihood became divorced from interaction with the river, the river starts to slip out of the mind. Our whole sense of place has changed dramatically."

Historian Phil Ogilvie, author of Along the Potomac, has been working on an interactive Web site that would enable people to tour the river digitally. "We're trying to get people back to the Potomac by using their computers," he says.

In the modern world, if it's not on the Web, it must not exist.

'Underneath It's a Whirlpool'

The obliteration of the past -- by erosion, pavement and vines so strong they can yank down a chimney -- makes it harder to grasp our place in the world. Park officials put up signs to "interpret" certain features along the river, like George Washington's skirting canal on the Virginia side of Great Falls. But there are other intriguing relics that remain uninterpreted. According to amateur historian Dan Guzy, some crumbling ruins of the Little Falls skirting canal can be seen in a streambed at Fletcher's Boathouse. The stones of a lock, built in the 1790s, now prop up a wooden footbridge. No signs. History is underfoot and unnoticed.

Upstream, kayakers have created a slalom course in a narrow sluice that historians believe is another remnant of that early skirting canal. The sluice turns into what is called the "feeder canal," because it carries water to the larger C&O Canal, just below Lock 5. The feeder is an improved version of the original Patowmack Company canal. In early March, on a chilly Sunday afternoon, a 5-year-old girl and her mother drowned in the slime-covered water of the feeder. The father was found shivering and incoherent nearby. The medical examiner ruled the drownings accidental, but police continued to investigate. The police and the news media struggled to identify the site of the drownings. It was called a "tributary" of the C&O. Stripped of history, the old canal today is just a strange, dangerous, wet ditch back in the trees -- obscure and creepy.

A few days after the drownings, Eugene Rossert, a volunteer fireman from Cabin John, stood with his elderly father at the place where he'd helped pull the bodies from the water. They were staring into the murk. How did it happen? Did the little girl vanish into the depths? Did the mother panic? What's down there? Rossert couldn't talk about what he saw that day -- it was still under investigation.

But he did say something that you often hear along the river -- that people underestimate the Potomac. He said his fire department routinely has to rescue people from the river, because they don't understand what they're dealing with.

"While it looks very calm on the surface, underneath it's a whirlpool," he said.

Secrets under the surface.


Where Are We?

The river, changed by the Ice Age and the Industrial Age, has been changed again by the Information Age. In the Information Age we are freed from geography. Information travels instantly around the globe. Through e-mail we routinely communicate with people whom we have never seen and whose location may be unknown to us. We surf Web sites located in a place called cyberspace, the ultimate nowheresville.

You have to ask: Does geography matter anymore?

At the very least it no longer shapes us the way it did George Washington and his generation. We aren't made exceptional by it or rendered isolated by it. What shapes society now is technology. It's fitting that the Internet was invented at a military think tank on the Potomac.

We live in a time when the very concept of place is in danger of extinction. People are transient. Culture is fluid. Distinctive edges and crags and crannies are gradually eroded by the homogenizing forces of commerce and globalization. More and more places in America could be anywhere: shopping malls, cookie-cutter subdivisions, the faux "town centre." You don't talk to your neighbors but exchange e-mails daily with a stranger in Duluth. Our neighborhoods look empty as people stay inside, staring into cyberspace.

The Potomac was once a river so important and alluring that Congress placed the permanent seat of the federal government on its bank. President Washington had the authority to select a spot for the new Federal City anywhere on the Potomac from the Anacostia (aka the Eastern Branch) to Conococheague Creek, more than 100 miles upstream at Williamsport, Md. The spot he chose was a natural crossroads, the intersection of the liquid route to the West and the Post Road (now U.S. Route 1) linking cities along the East Coast. But today all that seems kind of quaint. The situation has largely reversed: The capital is a sprawling city that just happens to have a river running through it.

Many people appreciate the Potomac, but few know it the way Vic Jenkins knew it as a young man, the way George Washington knew it, the way a lockkeeper knew it or a canal boatman or an Indian fishing for sturgeon.

But the river still has an important function. It's a time tunnel. It's the Route to the Past. It's a portal to a moment when the nation was young, when rivers were highways, when water ruled the planet, when omens good and bad hung in the air -- when no one knew how this experiment in self-government called the United States was going to turn out.

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