A Hydrologic Birthplace of U.S. History

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A panoramic view from Overlook 1 on the Virgina side of the park.

If trees could talk, imagine the things they would share about their surroundings. What would the Redwoods tell us about the parades of tourists that hug their massive trunks? What might the Colorado River have to say about the Lewis and Clark expeditions? Together, the land and water-based forces of nature bear witness to history, yet these stories are often untold, like those of Great Falls National Park.

Cradled between the borders of Virginia and Maryland, the falls are known for their unique landscape of millennia-old rocks, which serve as natural sculptors of the Potomac’s waters. I viewed the falls from the Virginia side of the park, though visitors can explore the site from its Maryland outpost. Once I pulled through the ranger gate, I knew the nature among the park, both land and water-bound, could communicate about the lesser-known tales of this region.

I approached Volunteer Master Ranger, Dolores Shanne’ Morisseau to be my interpreter and help translate the stories tucked between the leaves of the trees and among the river rapids. Clad in her khaki park ranger uniform, Morisseau has been with the National Park Service for 14 years. She pointed out on a map surrounding areas of the Potomac River that were used for trading by American Indians from 8,000 BC to around 1700. She also told me an amusement park ran here in the 1900s, its most popular attractions being its carousels. Residents of the area and tourists simply recognize this section of the 1,900-acre natural area as picturesque, but it is more than that. It is a hydraulic birthplace, symbolic of the first chapters of United States history.

Neither the landscape nor the biodiversity of the region interests Morisseau as much as the remnants of the locks of the Patowmack Canal, built in 1785. George Washington oversaw the construction of the canal, which he envisioned as a stimulus of economic exchange between the East and the Ohio River Valley. For 26 years, the canal did just that: It served as a highway for transporting flour, corn, whiskey, furs, tobacco, iron ore and timber via flatboats from as far north as the Allegheny Mountains.

Morisseau was fixated in conversation with me about these locks, which were restored by the National Park Service in 1966.

“What’s most remarkable to me is the stonework and how beautiful it is, and that it’s held together for well over 200 years,” Morisseau said.

She illustrated how our nation was established through use of these canals, because they inspired the first relations among the original states of the Union. In 1829, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company purchased and reconstructed the Patowmack Canal to be a water highway connecting the cities of Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The calm before a storm brewing north of Great Falls National Park.
The calm before a storm brewing north of Great Falls National Park.

The surrounding nature of Great Falls National Park witnessed over 10,000 years of history. Many visitors arrive each year to marvel at the falls, but some leave like I have, with a better appreciation of the region that brings gratitude of nature to visitors and an understanding of the growth it facilitated in raising our nation.

 

The park’s main visitor center is located at 9200 Old Dominion Dr. in McLean, VA. It is open from 7am until dark year-round.

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