This dependency is built into the very map of the city. For example, what is today Constitution Avenue was once a canal linking the Potomac and the Anacostia, designed to ease the delivery of supplies like coal to federal buildings. Going even further back, the site of the District itself 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, but far enough inland to take advantage of the defensive opportunities offered by the river’s winding course. In fact, DC sits on the last navigable stretch of the Potomac; Great Falls is exactly what it sounds like, barring both merchant vessels and warships from travelling any farther upriver.
One hundred and fifty years ago, this site would have bustled with the beasts of burden who kept the flow of trade along the stagnant waters of the 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 nearby Thompson Boat Center. As I stand here with my feet in the sand, my only company is a lone fisherman casting in the Potomac. Today, in the age of rail and road, you’d be hard pressed on most days to find anything other than recreational craft in the waters around Washington.
Time has mangled the tidewater lock and its adjoining waste weir, designed to mitigate surges of water in and out of the canal system. The eastern portion of this has 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 weir 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
Abandoned Washington DC by Thomas Kenning