Great Falls, Maryland (C&O Canal)

Last weekend, we took advantage of the wonderful weather and made a family excursion to a little spot along the Potomac River called Great Falls.  The falls mark the junction between the Coastal Plain (mostly comprised of coastal sediments and sedimentary rocks) and the Piedmont (continental crystalline basement rock) geologic provinces; otherwise known as the Fall Line.

This line extends along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and, due to the variation in weathering rates between the harder Piedmont and softer Coastal Plain rocks, is marked by waterfalls and significant rapids within the easterly flowing rivers and streams.  During colonial times, these water features prevented the direct shipment of goods along the arterial rivers between mountain locals and the eastern port cities closer to the coast.  In some instances, canals were later constructed to aid in the transport of cargo around these natural impediments.  Many well known cities, such as Richmond and Fredericksburg in Virginia; Trenton, New Jersey; and Washington D.C.; popped up near the Fall Line and served as centers of commerce where cargo was transferred between ships, canal boats, and horse-drawn carriages for travels further inland or from the mountains towards the sea.  In some instances, these places became centers of industry, combining the raw materials received to produce new commodities for redistribution. As railroads became established and trucks more common, a few of these towns began a slow decline as raw materials now past them by and headed directly for larger, coastal cities with deeper ports.

The Potomac River serves as the border between Virginia and Maryland which makes Great Falls accessible from either state.  Along the Virginia side lies Great Falls National Park which offers panoramic views up and down river, plenty of rock scrambling, and of course a picturesque view of the gorge the mighty river carved into the rocks of the  Piedmont.  On the Maryland side, the falls are incorporated in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park and it is to this side we headed.  The C&O, as it is commonly referred to, not only has spectacular views of the falls but also preserves the old canal, locks, and tow path which transported goods and people east and west between Washington D.C. and Cumberland, MD – a distance of about 184 miles – from 1831-1924.  Although Martha and I visited the falls in the past, this was the first trip for the kids and I look forward to exploring the rest of the 180 miles with them in the coming years.


A bit of an ominous start! Moby got flat-footed after a valve stem failed on the front driver side tire. 15 minutes later, we were back on the road none worse for the wear.


Great Falls Tavern at lock 20 along the C&O. The tavern served as a place of refreshment for those plying the boats and waiting for their turn to go through the lock. It now serves as the visitor center and bicycle loaner program.


To get to the Potomac’s main channel, we traversed a series of islands. The falls over which we walked, though smaller, are still quite impressive. The power of water has always amazed me.


The main section of falls in the gorge carved into the Piedmont by the Potomac river. The state of Virginia lies on the far side of the river.


A view west (upstream) along the canal into lock 19.


The locks were constructed using Triassic age Seneca Sandstone (Poolesville Member of the Manassas Sandstone). The local sedimentary rock was used throughout the region for all types of structures, including the Smithsonian Castle in D.C..  It is interesting to note that when quarried this rock is greyish in color and only turns red as iron within the sediments oxidizes during weathering.


Replica of the Charles F. Mercer tourist boat sitting in the canal waiting for its next batch of tourists (which included us). It is about 30ft shorter than the original cargo hauling boats, but still mule powered.


Entering lock 20 as we moved west along the canal.


With the lock gates to the rear (downstream) closed, the front gates were opened to allow water into the lock.  They raised the water level in the lock to a height equaling the water level in the upstream section of the canal so the boat could move out of the lock. I can’t recall the exact number, but I think around 19,000 gallons of water flowed into the lock, raising the boat 8ft in 5-minutes.


Going up.


Two mules could pull a loaded boat 4 mph for 5 or so hours at a clip back in the day.  These two had it easy with our trip only lasting an hour.


I think I know that bus!


After our boat ride, we walked over to another observation platform that overlooked a wing dam just west of the falls. The power of water is incredible as evidenced by these two huge trees washed from further upstream during this past spring’s high waters on the Potomac.


Mandatory family shot.


Saying hello to the mules that pulled our boat earlier. I believe this is Dolly.


Dolly, “Possum” (the boat captain), and our son.


We’re equal opportunity parents.


3 thoughts on “Great Falls, Maryland (C&O Canal)

  1. I looooved this post!! The stuff about Great Falls was fascinating. Old hat to you, I’m sure, but I didn’t know any of that stuff about the two types of rock causing rapids and falls and it’s just COOL!

    It’s also very cool that you can still ride a boat pulled by mules! And your photos are gorgeous, especially the view west at Lock 19. And I loved the little peek at the bus up on the hill. 🙂

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment Monica; I’m glad you liked the post! You guys should come down and we’ll all go 🙂 FYI The Fall Line crosses the Delaware at Scudders Falls – not quite as picturesque as Great Falls, but cool nonetheless.

  2. Pingback: Roadside emergencies (Flat tire) | Zero to Sixty . . .Eventually

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