George Washington Papers

Notes on the Navigation of the Potomac River above the Great Falls, July–August 1754

Notes on the Navigation of the Potomac River above the Great Falls

[July–August 1754]

Reference Above the Mouth of Shan[andoa]h there is but one fall and that is smooth and shallow which prevents Craft from passing at all times—Abt ½ Mile below is the place Esteem’d the most difficult It runs exceeding swift for wch reason it is call’d the spout and the bottom being very Rocky occasions rough water which will prevent small Canoes ever passing as our’s that was large had like to have fill’d—There continues for near three Miles Rocky & uneven—Water in which dist[anc]e and towards the latter end there is two other Falls one swift & ugly but when the River is higher than ordinary a passage may be had r[oun]d a small Island—which passage may be greatly improved—There ⟨is⟩ also a passage at the spout which vessels may, and have been hald up by near the shoar, and this may yet be improved—Abt 12 Miles below this is another Fall but very easy and passable and abt 2 Miles from that is a cluster of small Islands with many Rocks and swift water which render’s the passage somewhat precarious: from this to the Seneca Fall1 is a fine smooth even Water as can be desir’d The Seneca Fall is easily pass’d in two places and Canoes may continue within two Miles of the Great Falls2 but further it is not pos⟨sible⟩ therefore the expence and trouble of going up Seneca Falls will not answer the Charges as all Carriages are oblig’d to pass difficult Bridge3 from whence it is but 8 Miles to the Landing place at Mr Barnes Quarter at the Sugerlands and is 5 Miles to any Landing below the aforesd Falls of Seneca.4

AD, MnHi. A sketch map appears with the document.

In his Account with the Colony of Virginia, Oct. 1754, GW entered a charge of £4 10s. 6d. for “Expences in comeing down Potomack River for Canoes Men hire &c. this was undertaken by the perticular desire of Colo. Charles Carter.” GW almost certainly made the trip down the river in late July and early August, after “Riding to & from W’msburg after the late Engagement” of 9 July at Fort Necessity. Presumably he made his notes and sketch map during or soon after the trip. Horatio Sharpe and John St. Clair made a similar trip down the Potomac in Jan. 1755. It took them 5 days, including stops along the way (Sharpe to Frederick Calvert, Lord Baltimore, 12 Mar. 1755, in Browne, Sharpe Correspondence description begins William Hand Browne, ed. Correspondence of Governor Horatio Sharpe. 3 vols. Archives of Maryland, vols. 6, 9, and 14. Baltimore, 1888–95. description ends , 1 : 186).

1Seneca Falls begins just below the mouth of Seneca Creek, near the Fairfax-Loudoun county line.

2The Great Falls of the Potomac River, which drops 76 feet in a little over 1 mile, were the great impediment to navigation on the Potomac River. The Falls were finally bypassed by an ambitious and expensive series of locks and canals that were opened in Feb. 1802 by the Potowmack Company, of which GW was the first president (Bacon-Foster, Development of Patomac Route description begins Corra Bacon-Foster. Early Chapters in the Development of the Patomac Route to the West. Washington, D.C., 1912. description ends , 189, 203).

3Difficult Run, which enters the Potomac River from Fairfax County about 2 miles downriver from the Great Falls, was bridged for the main road paralleling the Potomac from Alexandria to the Shenandoah Valley.

4Abraham Barnes (d. 1785) of Fairfax County married Sarah Ball McCarty, widow of Denis McCarty of Cedar Grove, Fairfax County. The Sugar Lands region, located around what became the final Fairfax-Loudoun county border, was so called for the profusion of sugar maples in the area. In 1760 GW asked Barnes about buying some of this land.

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