George Washington at Harpers Ferry

Potomac River - October 1978

(Above) October 1978 photo showing ledges of Harpers shale cutting across the Potomac River just upstream from Harpers Ferry. George Washington paddled this stretch of river in August 1785, describing it as a passage “which I found greatly incommoded with rocks, shallows and a crooked Channel.” (Photo by David T. Gilbert)

The Patomack Company, chartered by the state legislatures of Maryland and Virginia in 1784, was formed to improve navigation on the Potomac River and its principal tributaries. Engineers were authorized to deepen existing river channels and to construct short bypass canals around impassable river rapids in order to permit boats drawing 12 inches of water and carrying 50 barrels of flour to pass on a year-round basis.

George Washington
George Washington. (HF-1388, Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry NHP)

Most of the river improvements in the Harpers Ferry area resulted directly from a personal inspection of the rapids by George Washington on August 7-8, 1785. On Sunday, August 7th, Washington wrote in his diary:

About Sunrising, the Directors & myself rid up to Keeptrieste, where Canoes were provided, in which we crossed to the Maryland side of the river and examined a Gut, or swash through which it is supposed the Navigation must be conducted. This Swash is shallow at the entrance, but having sufficient fall, may easily (by removing some of the rocks) admit any quantity of water required. From the entrance to the foot, may be about 300 yards in a semicircular direction with many loose, & some fixed rocks to remove. Having examined this passage, I returned to the head of the Falls, and in one of the Canoes with two skilful hands descended them with the common Currt. In its Natural bed—which I found greatly incommoded with rocks, shallows and a crooked Channel which left no doubt of the propriety of preferring a passage through the Swash. George Washington, August 7, 1785

Washington and his party, joined at Harpers Ferry by James Rumsey (the Patowmack Company’s first superintendent), continued down the river to the present site of Knoxville Falls, a distance of about three miles.