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.