Tidewater Lock


On the banks of the Potomac just west of the Watergate lies a sleepy stand of trees, forgotten on the margins of the monumental architecture of DC.  In its shade, the shallow waters of Rock Creek empty briskly into the listless current of the greater river, flowing through the splintered sieve of a ruined dam – the sepulchral remains of the tidewater lock.  One hundred and fifty years ago, this was the terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the metaphorical vascular system – the coursing lifeblood – of a small working class port called Georgetown which staked its fortunes on feeding the growing appetites of the neighboring capital. As the wreck in this quiet grove ably demonstrates, there is little so lost on modern Washingtonians as the District’s former dependency on water for commerce.  


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.

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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.

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The mouth of Rock Creek/C & O Canal mile marker zero



One thought on “Tidewater Lock

  1. I love going to this place! I first discovered it by accident back in March, so it was still a little chilly out. Needless to say my hands were pretty much frozen but well worth it. It was later on in the evening an the sun was already setting. I was walking from the Kennedy center and saw this place kind of hidden off to the side. I stood here for about 2 hours, sitting inches fro the water, watching the sun set, some boats pass by and listen to the sounds of the Potomac river. Even some ducks came up and were just arms length from me, probably thinking I had food. I took some pictures that evening and if you are interested send me a request!

    Posted by Fernando Suriel | July 18, 2015, 7:00 pm

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