This dependency is built into the very map of the city. The site of the District was chosen for its position adjacent to the Potomac, which allowed easy access to Atlantic trade – including grain, manufactured goods, and slaves – via the Chesapeake, as well as for the opportunities for defense that the river’s winding course inland allowed. What is today Constitution Avenue was once a canal linking the Potomac and the Anacostia, designed to make the transport of supplies like coal to federal buildings easier to accomplish. And finally, the C & O Canal – an overly ambitious scheme to bypass the impenetrable Potomac, linking the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic Ocean – began and ended here at the tidewater lock. The lock raised the level of lower Rock Creek some three feet, allowing the low draft flatboats room to maneuver, turning around in preparation for their return journey inland after offloading and loading cargo at Georgetown.
One hundred and fifty years ago, this site would have bustled with the beasts of burden who kept the flow of trade along currentless C & O moving – ropey stevedores and roustabouts, wiry mule drivers in worn out shoes, and dusty teams of mules swatting flies from their backs with nappy tails, fresh off the towpath, clamoring about, making this one of the busiest parts of town. Now, standing near the rotted lock, all you can hear is the undifferentiated and consuming hum of the Rock Creek Parkway and the occasional boat launch from the nearby Thompson Boat Center. As I stand here with my feet in the sand, my only company was a lone fisherman casting in the Potomac. Today, in the age of rail and road, you’d be hard pressed to find anything other than recreational craft in the waters around Washington.
Time has mangled the tidewater lock. The eastern portion is all but disappeared, its wooden frame almost completely consumed after resting in the water for more than a century. The western portion has fared only slightly better, probably due to the accumulated sediment of all those years – the sandy beach on which I now stand. When the moon is right, the tide rises to cover this tenuous bank. For now, the lock stands dry as the porous, desiccated rib cage of some ancient and forgotten behemoth, a wooden buffalo, say, long extinct and of a very different time. Esoteric, but still remembered by an interested few.
May we all fare as well.
The mouth of Rock Creek/C & O Canal mile marker zero