Great Falls Park, Virginia
Great Falls Park is 15 miles (24 km) from Washington, DC. The park is 800 acres (325 hectares). As of January 1, 2020, the park’s entrance fee is $20 per vehicle and $15 per motorcycle. For those entering by foot the fee is $10 per person. An annual pass is $35.[i] The park is open every day except Christmas Day. The park opens at 7 am and closes 30 minutes after sunset. The Visitor Center is open from 10 am to 4 pm. The parking lots are in the park proper.
It is illegal to swim or wade in the Potomac River inside the park. Violators are subject to a $200 fine, court appearance or arrest. This is for the visitors’ safety. Many people have died from swimming in the river or falling into the river from the slippery rocks along the shoreline.[ii] All safety rules must be obeyed.
[i] National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/news/public-reminded-of-upcoming-fee-increases-at-great-falls.htm, last accessed 5/13/19.
[ii] National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/planyourvisit/river-safety.htm, last accessed 5/9/2019.
The Visitor Center has a small auditorium which has a ten-minute film that tells the park’s history. Staff will show the film on request. It also has a small museum. There is an interactive children’s room with fun and educational activities for children. The center also has a book store. There is a concession stand and restrooms on the ground level. There are picnic tables and bar-b-que stands near the visitor’s center. These are available on a first come, first serve basis.
You will probably hear the falls before you see them. The scenic overlooks for the falls are within easy walking distance from the Visitor Center. These falls pale in comparison to Niagara Falls but it is a beautiful scene. On most days there will be kayakers on the Potomac River Gorge. Sections of the Potomac River range from Class II, novice, to Class V+, extreme.[i]
It is hard to believe that sometimes the river rises to the overlook but it has happened a few times. There is a post near an overlook that marks some of the high-water marks and the years the water reached them. There are also guided tours that tell of the area and its landmarks. Great Falls is a good place for a family outing.
[i] National Park Service, Kayaking the Potomac Gorge, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/planyourvisit/kayaking.htm, last accessed 5/13/2019.
The first humans known to have inhabited the Great Falls area were Paleo-Indians around 10,500 BCE. About 8000 BCE the Great Falls area was a meeting place for Native Americans. The Powhatan Confederacy and the Iroquois Nation used this area the most as a meeting place. This lasted until about 1700 CE. King Charles II gave the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers to seven Englishmen in 1649.[i]
During the late 18th century the colonists saw Ohio as the key to western expansion. President George Washington was a big proponent of western expansion. An inland water route to the Ohio Valley seemed a good way to link the East Coast to the Ohio Valley. The problem was a series of five waterfalls made the Potomac River unnavigable. George Washington came up with the idea of a series of bypass canals that skirted the five falls.
He and others started the Patowmack Canal Company and construction on the canal in 1785. This involved cooperation between the states of Maryland, that owned the river, and Virginia. Such cooperation was relatively new at the time. At Great Falls the Potomac River drops 76 feet in less than 1 mile (23 meters in 1½ kilometers)[ii]. George Washington presided over the canal project until he became president in 1789. The town of Matildaville, chartered in 1790, served as the Company’s headquarters.[iii] The working conditions were harsh for even by the standards of the day. The workers on the canal and in Matildaville included slaves, indentured servants, and hired hands.[iv]
The canal was completed in 1802. The Patowmack Canal Company went bankrupt in 1828. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal company purchased the canal and the canal stayed in service until 1830. The technology used to build the canal and its five locks was used by other canal companies to build thousands of miles of canals.[v]
From 1855 to 1867 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Aqueduct Dam to supply water to Washington, DC. In 1895 plans began to use the falls to supply hydroelectric power.[vi]
In 1906 the Great Falls Amusement Park opened.[vii] The park included a carousel. The first carousel survived two major floods. It couldn’t survive local politics. The carousel owners didn’t want to work for the park’s new owner, Fairfax County, and dismantled the carousel in 1952. The park acquired another carousel in 1953. The carousel remained in service until a flood brought on by Hurricane Agnes in June 1972 damaged the carousel beyond economic repair.[viii]
The carousel is gone but there are remains of the canal locks and Matildaville for visitors to view on their own or on guided tours.
[i] National Park Service, Great Falls Timeline, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm, last accessed 5/17/19.
[ii] Historical Marker Project, Patowmack Canal, https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM2CIG_patowmack-canal_McLean-VA.html, last accessed 5/19/19.
[iii] National Park Service, Great Falls Timeline, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm, last accessed 5/19/19.
[iv] Historical Marker Project, Patowmack Canal, https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM2CIG_patowmack-canal_McLean-VA.html, last accessed 5/19/19.
[v] Historical Marker Project, Patowmack Canal, https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM2CIG_patowmack-canal_McLean-VA.html, last accessed 5/19/19.
[vi] National Park Service, Great Falls Timeline, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm, last accessed 5/19/19.
[vii] National Park Service, Great Falls Timeline, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/chronology.htm, last accessed 5/19/19.
[viii] Great Falls National Park, Carousels, https://www.nps.gov/grfa/learn/historyculture/carousels.htm, last accessed 5/19/19.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi