Great Falls Park

Near Washington, D.C., the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it falls over a series of steep, jagged rocks and flows through a narrow gorge. This dramatic scene makes Mather Gorge a popular site with local residents and visitors from around the world who are visiting the Washington area. The river here was a trading place for Indians and early colonists, and it is still a gathering place today. History buffs and geology enthusiasts find plenty to interest them in the ruins of George Washington's dream canal and in the natural structure of the gorge itself. But many people come here just to take a walk, to picnic with family and friends, and to enjoy the view.

The Patowmack Company was formed in 1784 to construct a series of five canals to make the river navigable. George Washington presided over the effort, a dream of his since his youth when he surveyed the river and its tributaries. Washington was convinced that such canals would stimulate trade between the east and the Ohio Valley, and, more importantly, bind the country together in a framework of trade and mutual interest.

Construction began on this canal system—America's first—in 1785 and was completed in 1802. The canals at Little Falls above Georgetown and here at Great Falls both required locks, a challenge for the engineers of the company. Skirting canals also were dug at Seneca Falls and Harpers Ferry; elsewhere the company simply dredged and improved the existing riverbed.

During the 26 years that the canal system was in operation, flour, corn, whiskey, tobacco, furs, iron ore, and timber ware poled down the river on flatboats from as far away as Cumberland, Maryland, which was a market center in the Allegheny Mountains. The flatboats were about 75 feet long, 5 feet wide, and pointed at both ends. It took about three days to travel the more than 190 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown. Most boatmen dismantled their boats, sold them for the lumber, and then walked back home.

In 1790 the town of Matildaville was sponsored by "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and friend of Washington. The town, near Great Falls, flourished for nearly three decades but declined in the 1820s as trade dwindled.

In 1828 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company bought the old Patowmack Canal and its rights, eventually linking the city of Washington to the west with a continuous canal. The C&O Canal was one of the first "highways" to the west, but it was soon superseded by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which could carry larger loads faster and less expensively than the canal barges.

Today, footpaths lead through the woods to remnants of Matildaville and the Patowmack Canal.

Start your visit at the visitor center. Rangers can help you plan your visit with an orientation to the park. Exhibits tell the story of the Patowmack Canal and the park resources. Maps and books may be purchased.

The park road and trails are for hiking and exploring. Along the blue-blazed River Trail are places to view the river and Mather Gorge. A park trail map and a self-guiding brochure for the Patowmack Canal trail are available at the visitor center.

Horseback riding and bicycling are permitted only on designated trails shown on the trail map. Bicycles and horses are not allowed in the courtyard area or on the Patowmack Canal trail.

Anglers can fish for bass, catfish, or carp. A Virginia or Maryland fishing license is required for anglers over 16 years of age.

Whitewater boating is for experienced boaters who are permitted to enter the river only below the falls.

Rock climbing is a challenging sport enjoyed here. Several good stretches of rock offer adventure for climbers and vantage points for those who wish to watch. Please register at the visitor center or lower parking lot before climbing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 19 Apr 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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