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Great Falls


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An early albumin photo fo Great Falls
Great Falls - Maryland
  Great Falls of the Potomac is one of the greatest natural wonders in the Washington DC area. The Potomac River cascades over the granite bedrock in the river valley in a series of beautiful falls. Below these falls, the river is navagible other than the small falls at Little Falls a few miles down river.

In the late 18th century George Washington formed a company to make the river navagible from the Chesapeake to the headwaters of the river. They built short canal sections skirting the falls at Little Falls and at Great Falls. This canal was on the Virginia side of the river at Great Falls.


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The central section of the falls
Great Falls - Maryland
  The natural beauty of the area attracted artists who made paintings, sketches and engravings of the falls. The invention of photography brought pioneer photographers to the falls to capture its grandure.

Above to the right is an albumin photograph of the falls taken in the 1880's. Below it is a silver nitrate photograph from around 1900. The most impressive photos of the falls, like this one, are taken from the middle of the river, as the view of the falls is partially blocked from both shores.

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The "Government Dam" that feeds water into the Washington Aqueduct
Great Falls - Maryland
  In the mid 19th century a new photographic technology was developed, the stereo camera. Stereo camersa had two sets of lenses spaced about eye-distance apart; this captured the image in a way very like the human eyes. When mounted at the right distance from each other and viewed through a simple optical device, the resulting image had a very realistic 3D effect. To the right is a stereoview of a hunter standing on the "Government Dam" at Great Falls.

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A turn-of-the-century foot bridge to the falls.
Great Falls - Maryland
  The "Government Dam" was is feeder dam, still in use today, which directs water into the beginning of the Washington Aqueduct.

Great Falls is reached by a walking trail. The trail departs the tow-path of the C & O Canal and passes over a series of bridges which span the various channels of the river. Most of these channels are dry except in times of flood. The bridges periodically get washed away in times of high flooding. Most recently in 1972 when the Potomac reached its highest level since the 1930's, due to hurricane Agnes, most of the bridges to the falls were lost in this flood.

The bridge shown on the right stood at Great Falls around 1900. During this period the bridges were privately owned and the owners charged a nominal fee to cross them to the falls. In 1900 the fee was five cents. The photo is labeled "chain bridge", but should not be confused with "Chain Bridge" which crosses the Potomac near the Maryland/DC line.

The C & O Canal cuts through the Great Falls area, paralleling the river, only a few yards away. The inlet of the Washington Aqueduct goes right under the canal tow-path, and the buildings that house the controls for the aqueduct stand close by the Great Falls Tavern which stands right next to the canal.

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Map showing the layout of the river, canal, and dam at Great Falls
Great Falls - Maryland
  The map at right shows the layout of the Great Falls area. The river being the large blue area, the canal is shown as a thin line of blue above the river, and the "Government Dam" is a black line angling across the river toward the canal. The falls are shown at the bottom right of the map.

The previously mentioned bridges to the falls are located on Falls Island.

The "Government Dam" was a great boon to fishermen. Fish tend to gather along the dam and thus are more plentiful than in many other areas.

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Fishermen at the dam, Great Falls Maryland
Great Falls - Maryland
  The postcard to the right shows two fishermen standing along the dam.

There used to be several gold mines at Great Falls. Oral traditions hold that Civil War soldiers camped aroung Great Falls found traces of gold in the streams feeding into the Potomac, and that after the war several of them returned to mine gold. While this might or might not be true, it is true that there were several successful gold mines in or neat Great Falls.


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The remains of the Maryland Gold Mine at Great Falls
Great Falls - Maryland
  The Maryland Gold Mine was the longest lasting of the mining concerns, sinking several shafts several hundred feet into the gold-bearing quartz of the area. The mine lasted well into the 20th century, but closed before WWII.

Significant remains of the mining operations stood until the 1980s, including the water torwe seen in the photo on the right. Scattered remains can still be found in the woods at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Falls Road.

Though it is against the law, amature prospectors can still find small amounts of gold by panning in the streams near the old mine.

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Historic Dicky's Tavern, Great Falls Virginia
Great Falls - Maryland
  While this webpage is about the Montgomery County, Maryland side of the Potomac River, It should be mentioned that the Virginia side of Great Falls offers much to the history of the area. Views of the falls are more easily accessed on the Virginia side, though adirect access to the river is more difficult as most of the Falls area has a steep drop-off to the river.

The virginia side was the location of the first canal around the falls and the site of a famous tavern named Dicky's Tavern. Dicky's stood into the 20th century, but is now gone. For may years there was a carrousel on the Virginia side.

Dicky's Tavern is shown to the right.




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