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The Potomac

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1089, pp. 458-460.

May 18, 1861


This river, besides possessing great natural beauties, has at the present time attaching to it a political interest of no ordinary kind, on account of its being the great waterway to Washington. The United States' steamers Anacosta and Pocahonta—the latter a vessel of about 1800 tons—are now at the Washington Navy Yard, and are, it is said, amply sufficient to keep the navigation of the Potomac open against any force that can possibly be brought against it for some time to come. In this service the ships of war at Washington and in Chesapeake Bay will be supported by Fort Washington, situated on the Maryland side of the river on a rocky promontory, about forty miles below the capital. This fort, of which we give an Engraving, is strongly garrisoned by United States' troops. Mount Vernon, once the home, but now the tomb, of Washington, of which also we give an Illustration, lies fifteen miles south of the city on the Potomac.

A fine view of Washington, Georgetown, and the surrounding land and water, is found at an elevated point of the noted Cumberland-road, three or four miles west of Washington. From that spot the eye embraces a wide and beautiful scene. The broad, shining surface of the Potomac, as emerging from between the high and rocky banks which confine its channel above Georgetown, it begins to spread out in front

Page 459

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Views on the Potomac Below Washington.—From Sketches by our Special Artist. 1. The Potomac at Washington. 2. Fort Washington. 3. General View of the Potomac Looking towards Washington. 4. Mount Vernon.

Page 460

of that city, where, divided by the gently-sloping lawns of Mason's Island, it extends on one side along the Virginia shore, and, widening on the other, appears to wash the foundations of the President's house as it skirts along Washington, and, passing on to Greenleaf's Point, receives the waters of its western branch. These together form a spacious bay, the north-eastern extremity of which is occupied by the United States' Navy Yard, while a caual [sic] crosses the low cape which separates them. Further down the Potomac is seen sweeping its broad course, almost to the spot where it receives a sad yet noble gloom from the overhanging precipices of Mount Vernon.

The northern branch of the Potomac rises within the Appalachian Mountains, on the eastern declivity of the Backbone Range, and runs in a valley in a north-eastern direction, thirty miles, when it suddenly turns south-east, and breaks through two chains of mountains in about ten miles of its course; it then runs again north-east to Cumberland, and has a course of twenty miles in a valley; deflecting again to the south-east, it traverses a mountain range, and twenty miles below Cumberland it is joined by the South Branch, which rises in the centre of Virginia, and runs north-east for about 100 miles in a valley inclosed between the Alleghany [sic] and Kittatinny chains, before it unites with the northern branch. After this junction the Potomac continues to flow in an eastern direction, through mountain ranges, with great rapidity, until it turns south-east, and before it breaks through the Blue Ridge, the most eastern chain of the Appalachian system, is joined from the south by the Shenandoah, the largest of its affluents, which rises in Virginia, near 38 deg. N. lat., and flows over limestone rocks, in a wide and fertile valley between the Kittatinny and Blue Ridge, for about 130 miles. The united stream passes through the Blue Ridge at Harper's Ferry by a gap, which has all the appearance of being the effect of a violent disruption in the continuity of the mountain chain. The river now enters the plain country, through which it flows in a south-east direction, with rather a rapid course. The last falls occur a few miles above Georgetown, to which place the tide ascends. Below the head of tide-water the Potomac becomes a deep and wide river, and, passing Washington and Alexandria, it has a general east-south-east course to the Chesapeake Bay, which it enters in 30 deg. N. lat. At the falls above Georgetown it is ten feet deep, and at Alexandria three fathoms; so that vessels of any burden can ascend to the latter place, and large vessels as far as Washington Navy Yard. The whole course of the river exceeds 320 miles. Large boats ascend it fifty or sixty miles above Harper's Ferry, and smaller ones much higher.

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