The Great Falls Of The Potomac Run Wild

Wild mass of rushing water, tumbling, pouring in huge quantity, tearing between and over mighty granite rocks, worn round by ages of falling stream—and you are at the Great Falls of the Potomac, astonished, amazed at their greatness, at their wildness, their state of nature and beauty.

You are less than sixteen miles from the Capitol but you might be hundreds of miles away, judging from the undisturbed wildness of it all.

You have come by a beautiful road which leaves Georgetown crowded in between the picturesque canal and the hillside. The old canal streams drowsily on. It is all amazingly picturesque. The towpath goes beside little old cabins, crowded among trees, and there is a fringe of old-time life beside the road, pressed down by the steep, rising hillside. In a short distance you pass little shops and cabins and a smithy, and then the ancient picturesque canal swings to the left and the road takes you through a great loneliness, with masses of honey-suckle, with scattered pines, filled closely and charmingly in. But the houses—they are few—are small and poor with bare-swept grassless dooryards. The road is called the Conduit Road from the fact that it runs either on the acqueduct or alongside of it, and passes the Washington reservoirs with their little old stone temple-like buildings, with the roofs like pocket-edition pantheons!

Now and then buzzards from Virginia go floating overhead, sinister, black and ragged.

The broad Potomac, here a live and rippling stream, stretches for miles in view of this road, and the Virginia hills are banked on the farther side, thick with trees. There is the rushing water of a dam, and below the road the old canal keeps a green and sleepy way beside the river. There is a trolley park out here and many signs of campers, but long stretches are as solitary as they were when Daniel Webster followed the stream for fish and found rest and pleasure in whipping the stream.

Cabin John Bridge, a long narrow high-level bridge of gray stone, with red stone parapets, carrying the acqueduct and the Conduit Road over it, flings its mighty span of one great arch above the creek that ripples far below, in a ravine that is close grown with tall trees, tulips and sycamores, so that on Cabin John Bridge you stand among the tree-tops.

Cabin John Bridge had cut upon it the name of Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War, but the name was chipped off soon after it was put on, the bridge having been built at the beginning of the Civil War. It has the largest single stone arch in America, two hundred and twenty feet in length. It was made for the purpose of carrying the Washington Acqueduct over the deep ravine of Cabin John Creek. The Harlem High Bridge, also an early acqueduct bridge, was built to carry the Croton water into New York and in contrast consists of thirteen granite arches. When Theodore Roosevelt was President, he had the name of Jefferson Davis re-placed upon Cabin John Bridge.

Beyond the bridge the rocks rise higher, with laurel thickets and wilder places, and there are cabins with outside chimneys and with lean “hound dogs” around the doors.

The Anglers’ Association of Washington has a lodge near the river, and here the road goes inland, leaving the Potomac, through heavy woodland still more wild and after several miles descends by a long and sinuous hill to the Falls.

Here stand a few buildings, notably an old-time house of brick, large and well-proportioned, with picturesque windows, broad-gabled, long-fronted, an old waterside tavern kept up as a club-house. It was here at the Falls that Henry Clay fought one of his duels, this time with the erratic John Randolph. John had called Henry a black-leg, which colorful phrase was strong enough to merit attention between fiery Southern gentlemen in 1826. Clay fired at Randolph and Randolph fired at random ! remarking, “I cannot fire at you, Mr. Clay”—certainly an amende after his dark epithet; and they fell on each other’s necks and wept.

George Washington, here surveying and engineering the old canal around the Falls, Daniel Webster in solitary trout fishing, Clay and Randolph weeping on each other’s necks,—no other human associations are needed in the vicinity of these great lonely Falls of the Potomac.

You quickly lose sight of all signs of building or civilization. A path leads to a long and swaying, swinging footbridge, and as you cross the channel, this being a minor channel of the river, scattered thick with huge blocks of granite around which the water rushes, you see far off at the right the main stream of the forest-bordered river, bending into misty indistinctness. You reach an island of great masses of granite with sufficient sand deposit in the rock hollows to grow thickets and bowers of wild grapes, with undergrowth in which the prickly cactus creeps.

A long walk over the granite unevenesses and you come to the farther channel and the Great Falls, and before you are masses of water crowding, tumbling, falling, in overwhelming volume. The trees and hills and water unite in tremendous grandeur with mist clouds rising from the Falls—and this less than sixteen miles from the Capitol! A present-day dream-plan is to turn this region into a park reservation; and a sinister plan is to utilize all the power for manufacturing. As we turn away, a wonderful purple coloring hangs over the eastward hills.

Immediately below Georgetown, the Potomac assumes quiet and stately beauty; its turbulent character is gone; it is now a tidewater stream. Sur-mounting a great commanding hillside opposite the city of Washington, on the Virginia side, is Arlington, centering about the old pillar-fronted mansion, built a century and a quarter ago by Washington’s adopted son, G. W. P. Custis. It offers a notable view, standing as it does two hundred feet above the river. The heavily pillared house is fronted like a Doric temple, and is a comfortable mansion house masked thus imposingly. This front was copied from the Temple of Theseus at Athens. It was the proper thing for Virginia gentlemen to study the classic, and build accordingly, at this period.

All Arlington is national property and it has become a noble memorial, a distinguished and honored place of burial, for soldiers of all our wars. The word “Arlington” has come to have a national meaning, as the “Abbey” has in England, as a place of solemn sepulture, than which no one could have higher. Placed here and there about the great park-like grounds are bronze tablets, each with a stanza of “The Bivouac of the Dead.” Colonel O’Hara wrote the soldierly poem for a war monument in Frankfort to the memory of Kentuckians killed in the Mexican War, but the verses are stirring for this vastly wider field:

“On Fame’s eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead.”

Not only private soldiers are buried in Arlington but an increasing number of important officers. Any and all, dying in service, of officers or men, have the right to be buried here. And already there are uncountable thousands of the low-set stones that have been adopted. The little white stones, uniform in distance one from the other, are marshalled like regiments for review upon the green grass and under the solemn old trees.

The place marks the turning of the tide of an important fortune; for Arlington was the home of Robert E. Lee, who was son-in-law of the early owner, George Washington Parke Custis. He left Arlington at its loveliest, never to return, on a spring day in 1861, when all the magnolias and the jasmine were in blossom.

It is rolling park land, rich in trees, but constantly the view stretches off in miles of beauty with the Potomac curving and gleaming in lengthening glory and the great monuments and white palaces of Washington, the Lincoln Memorial, the tall shaft of the Washington Monument, the peaceful White House, the great-domed Capitol on its hill, all shimmering in sunlit marble.

In front of the mansion of Arlington is perhaps the best placed grave in America, that of the unfortunate L’Enfant, marked by a stone like a table, with his city plan upon it. His body long lay in obscurity in a Maryland farm but was brought here by architects, his modern confreres, who placed the grave in splendid sight of the noble city of his dreams.

All the slopes of Arlington down to the Potomac are sentineled by tall Virginia cedars, cypress-like in their beauty.

The old house is of ochre-yellow stucco. The white pillars are unusually heavy. The interior of the house is gaunt and bare, showing what might have happened to Mount Vernon had it been made a Government show place, instead of being in charge of patriotic women.

A long distance from the mansion and on the same commanding height overlooking the river and the city, there has been built one of the noblest structures in the world. It is a memorial amphitheater, open to the sky, circular in shape, and with white marble benches in lines within an enclosing columned arcade, with fifty-six circling columns.

The architects were Carrere and Hastings. The spotless whiteness of the interior, the magnitude of it, the blue sky directly overhead, the fine simplicity of the encircling columns, the tall gloomy green cedars seen through the arches, the dignity, the grandeur, the impressiveness, the lonely beauty—this and the Lincoln Memorial, in full view across the Potomac, are unequaled among modern structures. Shall the time ever come when there shall be acknowledging reference to the Seven Wonders of Washington? Or may it now be called the American Renaissance!

Below the city where the Potomac and Anacostia join, is the War College, the highest school in the course of military education of the United States Army. Only officers of prominent rank are admitted and the arts of war are taught in a sort of post-graduate West Point; or, as it might be ex-pressed, it is a sort of Johns Hopkins of death.

Below the War College, on the Potomac, the great tragedy took place on the gunboat “Princeton,” when the explosion of a big new gun killed members of the Cabinet and other visitors, including the father of Julia Gardiner, who shortly afterwards became the wife of President Tyler, who barely escaped being killed himself. Stockton, in command of this gunboat named the “Princeton” after the town which loved him and which he loved, was among the wounded.

The college town of Princeton has few but grim associations with the city of Washington. Not only was there this explosion, but the one man of great ability and public place, an early Vice-President of the United States, in regard to whom no stories are told, no memories brought up, in Washington, was Aaron Burr, son of the first President of Princeton; and a recent President of the United States, who taught Americans to accept a rule of secret arbitrariness, and who was stricken in the height of his power, had been a President of Prince-ton.

The War College is on low-lying land, almost on the river level, and there are widespreading views of water and hills and trees. Close by, across an inlet, is Potomac Park, with its remarkable cherry-bordered drive. Over yonder is Arlington. Near at hand, across the water, is the principal aviation field of the army and the air is vibrant with the sound of planes.

The grounds of the War College and Washing-ton Barracks are entered through a sentineled gate, and the College building is beyond a green parallelogram. It is a great brick building at the end of the open esplanade and is fronted by a wide terrace. It is a sort of huge classic, hall-like building, dominated at the ends by two very large and quarrelsome-looking stone eagles.

Stanford White was the architect, and it is said that after he designed the college, he was asked if he would not design some homes for the officers, whereupon, limited as to expenditure though he was, he built the most attractive homes offered to officers at any Government post. They back toward the water and Potomac Park. They are square, of brick, with roofs of heavy slate, with lovely white pillared porticoes, wrought-iron rails, brass knobs, high roofs, huge chimneys and dormers. They are galleried and trellised and use the river views and there are also lovely river glimpses between the houses, seen in passing.

Along the river front of the Potomac has been created a park of enchanted beauty; essentially a motor park. Until recent years, it was a region of glooming flats. It now includes one thousand acres of reclaimed marsh land which has been developed with wonderful effectiveness.

Until this park was built the river was practically unapproachable to modern Washingtonians, and its beauties were unseen. The river was important to the early city. Robert Morris, the great financier, tried vainly to arouse interest in a three-mile “street” along the waterfront. The White House had a river-face with grounds to the water’s edge. Such old houses as remain show that they were built with regard to river views. The Octagon turned a shoulder to the White House to face an upstream view. The old Law house was built on a high basement that its windows might command the water.

Potomac Park is a long, flat promontory which has the effect of being an island in the river. It is circummured within a wonderful drive, picturesque with large black-boled willows and bordered and bowered by what is known as the flowering cherry of Japan.

Mrs. Taft, a month after going to the White House to live, had eighty Japanese cherry trees bought and planted here, because she had seen and admired them when in the East; and hearing of this compliment to his country, a Japanese resident of New York offered two thousand of the trees as a gift. They were what may be called inhospitably received, however, for they were condemned as infected and all were destroyed. With a patience proverbial to the East, the city of Tokio then gave three thousand, and the waterside is now an exquisite, poetic dream of beauty in the springtime in delicate ethereal color, peculiarly suited to the colors of Washington in the spring, to the blue sky, the river, the delicate green of the willows and grass and the white marble of the city’s monuments and memorials.

The grass in the spring-time, pale, lovely, delicate, is green beyond belief in the long field that forms the center of the park, and all one side is a great garden of perennials, of iris and masses of later flowers. But it is the bowers of pink cherry blossoms on the dwarf gray-boled trees, planted in irregular groups, not in stiff precision, that is the famous and the lovely setting of Potomac Park. These cherries are not fruit-bearing trees, and are the flower we know as “hawthorn” on the porcelain jars of the Orient. They are really a sort of plum and are botanically “prunus pseudo cerasus”; but the “cherry” they are, in all usage.

There are several interesting and broad-spirited uses to which this park land has been put. A long stretch down the center is given over for the use of a great number of citizens who wish to grow their own vegetable gardens. The land is neatly ploughed and apportioned in little patches. It is far from being for the poor, for most of the gardeners arrive in their own motors and fall to, with diligent rake and hoe. There is a public polo field, with bounds tightly set for the balls. There is a great public golf links used under the simplest rules, and with exceptionally good grass. And there is a public camping ground where motor tourists may stay with their cars all night; this being in particular a development from the great number of caravan motors going to or coming from Florida.

The Potomac is still a quiet stream; it is probable that “all quiet along the Potomac!” will be retained in general memory for many a generation to come:

“All quiet along the Potomac tonight, Where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming ; Their tents in the rays of the clear autumn moon, Or the light of the watch-fire, are gleaming.”

From the bridge which leads from the park to the Virginia shore, and from the farther side of the bridge after nightfall, is a sprinkling of hundreds of lights with beautiful effect; it is a fairy-land, with every light striking its deep reflection down into the water, and with the firefly lights of motor cars flitting and passing.

The park is a region for fishermen, especially on Sunday mornings. They fish from the walled embankment along the Tidal Basin, mostly solitary and silent, instead of in groups, and in fact giving an effect decidedly French; “soaking an indeterminate bait in the large, indifferent stream.”

John Quincy Adams, when President, loved to walk and ride and row and swim ; and one morning early, he set out to cross the Potomac from the White House grounds. His son John and his steward Antoine were with him, and they all took off their clothes in the boat intending to dive into the river. Suddenly came a gust of wind—tidewater streams are subject to sudden capfuls of wind—and the three men had to swim for the farther shore with practically every garment lost in the river. The steward, with barely enough clothes for decency, went back alone to the White House, while the President of the United States waited in gnat-bitten misery in the bushes, where he sat hidden for two hours; which makes a Potomac-side picture that adds to the gayety of nations.

But to President Adams, firm precisionist that he was, the occurrence was excessively mortifying. It held no humor for him ! And that evening he wrote of it in his diary, as a “humiliating lesson.”

One wonders if this may have given inspiration to the saturnine Carlyle for what is perhaps his most widely remembered writing, for he wrote within a year or two after this Presidential nudity, the early portion of “Sartor Resartus,” in which he set down his weird imagination of a ruler suddenly becoming, when his garments vanished, naught but a fantastically carved forked radish!