The Potomac Winds through the History and Soul of Frederick County
Long before Frederick County became a county, long before Maryland became a state, the Potomac River flowed. Languid and slow or ferocious and flooding, the river that forms a natural border has come to define life in that part of the county.
The river is mostly a place for recreation today, but it once drew Native Americans, a young surveyor named George Washington and settlers as they sought a place to call home.
“It’s this broad, really slow river, but with an extra strong current,” says Emily Huebner, assistant director of the Frederick-based Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. Each summer, Huebner canoes the section of the Potomac River from Brunswick to Point of Rocks several times with her fiancé and friends.
“We stop at islands in the river along the way,” she says. Thickly-forested banks allow for abundant wildlife spotting. Paddling through riffles and small rapids, she and her companions see ducks, herons, dragonflies and damselflies. “We see lots of insects, dragonflies, damselflies and hellgrammites, especially earlier in the season,” she says. “That’s an indicator of the relative health of the river.”
On a hot summer day, you may find only a few boaters in this stretch. At times, Huebner says, it feels like they have the river to themselves.
Yet, it has a draw, she adds. A wide range of recreation seekers can use this shallow section of river, from tubers to small motor boaters. “If you take a tube down, it doesn’t take as much skill, and the barrier to entrance is low,” she says. Brunswick is a great starting point for families. The river forms an inlet at the Brunswick boat launch, where the water is nearly still.
The Frederick County section of the Potomac River is 15 miles of winding, wooded shoreline. From Knoxville down to the Monocacy Aqueduct, there are several access points via the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The canal parallels the river from Georgetown to Cumberland, where the river becomes known as the North Branch of the Potomac.
Rick Weldon, former state delegate and current president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, was a student at University of Maryland when he envisioned a C&O Canal Visitor’s Center as part of a research project about revitalizing downtown Brunswick. That Visitor Center today is housed in the Brunswick Railroad Museum, open Thursdays through Sundays.
Upstream from Knoxville, kayakers, canoeists, rafters and tubers make the exciting journey through the Needles, over the broken remnants of Dam 3, maneuvering around boulders and over swift-moving rapids. But as the river flows toward Frederick County, it becomes more benign. South Mountain’s Weverton Cliffs tower over this stretch, and from the river or the canal, you may see Appalachian Trail hikers ascending or descending the steep slope.
The river passes over the Weverton, Old Mill and Knoxville rapids, usually gentle at slow water but can become more challenging when rain swells the Potomac. Smallmouth bass test anglers. The leafy, wooded shoreline frames the shallow river.
At the Brunswick boat ramp, the Potomac carves a quiet inlet. It was here that Loudoun Sketch Club members recently set up their easels for an afternoon of plein air painting on a mild spring day. “The reason I chose that is it has something for everyone,” says Pat Whittle, chair of the club’s Outdoor Committee. “Architecture of the town, flora of the canal, the woods, the little cut, and the trees bending over the water.”
It was the river, however, that drew the artists. “Everyone painted the river,” she says. “A lot of locations we do have ponds or water running through.” Water, she says, offers a completely different texture.
About 25 painters each worked for about two hours, painting the river in oil, watercolor and even colored pencil. The artists were drawn not only by the water, but the vegetation it supports. In the spring, bluebells by the thousands appear near the banks. In fall, Huebner is drawn to the thousands of paw paw trees that grow profusely along the marshy banks and the mango-like soft, green fruit that drop along the shoreline. “You can find them floating in the river,” she says.
Huebner adds, “It’s a long river, an important lifeblood.”
Dean Naujocs agrees. “It’s the area’s lifeblood,” he says. Naujocs is the Potomac Riverkeeper for the stretch of river from Harpers Ferry as it flows past Frederick County to the river’s mouth, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s a pretty isolated stretch of river,” he says of the Frederick County section. “It’s one of the lesser-used stretches, and it’s very beginner-friendly.” Although Knoxville to Point of Rocks is rocky, at normal water levels, “it’s a long, slow, lazy stretch,” Naujocs says. “There’s pretty cool bass fishing. Anglers love it. It’s like a hidden gem.”
Motorized skiffs thread through the islands and rocks in search of the perfect fishing hole, or maybe just time away from the stresses of life. The rapid current can be a bit misleading, however, and Naujocs recommends any boater or tuber wear a personal flotation device and keep belongings in waterproof bags. Even the easy flow around Point of Rocks can fool experienced boaters. “There’s a reason they call it Point of Rocks,” he says.
Pepper Scotto was 9 when her parents bought a farm between Point of Rocks and Lander in 1955. Her father believed they were caretakers of the farm and of the area’s history, not just the story of George Washington’s plans for canal transportation and the development by wealthy landowners, but the story of those who worked to make the area prosperous.
She grew up learning about the region’s transportation draw, starting with the Potomac River in the 18th century and Washington’s vision of building the canal, progressing to the C&O Canal in the 19th century and the B&O Railroad in the late 19th and 20th centuries, to the canal’s present-day use for recreational transportation. At the nation’s birth, the river made it easier to get natural resources from the mountainous regions upstream to Alexandria, Va., and later to the newly planned nation’s capital.
Soldiers crossed the Potomac to Frederick County during the Civil War, headed to battles at Antietam and Gettysburg. In the latter 19th century, the canal and railroad continued to ferry goods from farms in Western Maryland, West Virginia and beyond to the East Coast. By the 20th century, however, the Potomac floods that plagued the transportation network were becoming a problem to the residents who lived and worked along the river.
Scotto befriended people in Point of Rocks who lost their homes and fishing cabins repeatedly to flooding. As she says, they “cleaned out, washed up and rebuilt. Why? Because the Potomac is their home.” They didn’t want to move, she says. Today, however, the homes closest to the river are gone. As residents died off, the government bought their homes and cabins and took them down.
The last catastrophic flood occurred in 1996. Flood stage is 16 feet, but twice in 1996 the river rose to 36 feet. Since then, the last major floods crested at 25 feet in 2010 and 2018. High-water marks occurred during the 1936 flood, when the river swelled to 41 feet, and in 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes dumped so much rain the river rose to 37 feet.
As for fish, smallmouth bass may be the favorite among today’s anglers, but eels were once the fish of choice on the Potomac, to eat and sell. Eels are an important part of a healthy river ecosystem, according to the Potomac Conservancy, which rates the Potomac River’s health at a B-. The organization says that means the river is getting cleaner, but there’s still more work to do.
Scotto has remained in Point of Rocks, at her home near the river. “But I still to this day go down to the river and sit on the bank and let the water cruise by and give me peace. I can meditate so much deeper when alone down on the river,” she says. “The Potomac River is a draw of the energetic, curious and tired old people like me—to have the gliding waters draw away the hectic life of today.”
Heater’s Island has its own fascinating history. One of the Potomac’s largest islands, this island that extends downstream from Point of Rocks is now a state Wildlife Management Area. Hunters, campers and daytrippers are welcome to visit by boat and explore. Hunting is allowed according to state regulations.
The Piscataway natives lived on the island from 1699 to 1712. Smallpox killed 57 of the island’s 300 residents in 1704, but the population rebounded before tribe members moved north to Pennsylvania. Archeological digs on the island starting in 1970 present a picture of Native Americans in transition from pre-Columbian settlement to life under European colonization.
Google Earth shows a continuous ribbon of green along the Frederick County portion of the Potomac River. It’s the continuous band of trees adjacent to open water that makes the Potomac an ideal habitat for birds, says Bonnie Borsa, president of the Frederick Bird Club.
“It’s one of the hotspots in Frederick County,” she says. “June is prime nesting time.” In breeding season, the birds’ brilliant plumage emerges, and along the Potomac, warblers in particular reward birders with a variety of colors.
Borsa suggests when trying to spot birds, look for movement. Also, listen. Hearing the call is often the first step to seeing a bird. “Also, look up,” Borsa says. That’s especially helpful to see red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures and possibly bald eagles, which have made a comeback along the river in recent years.
In the river, it’s easy to spot the majestic great blue heron sitting on rocks. You’ll also see barn swallows, tree swallows and rough-winged swallows over the water as they devour insects. Cormorants can be seen on the water. These large black birds have an orange gullet.
Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common woodpeckers. Red-bellied woodpeckers and large pileated woodpeckers can be seen, and their raucous cries are often heard. Other colorful birds that nest and live along the riverbank and the C&O are the goldfinch, bluebird, cardinal and indigo bunting. Birds with distinct calls include the ethereal wood thrush, the cheerful song sparrow, the white-breasted nuthatch, the Carolina wren, and the yellowthroat, a warbler that lives in the fields just off the river.
Besides bird life, visitors will often spot box turtles, sun turtles, snapping turtles, salamanders, black snakes, deer, beaver and otters along the shoreline.
In 2020, the canal park recorded about 70,000 vehicle visits to Brunswick. Even little Lander received about 17,000 vehicle visits. As a whole, the park hosted over 4.5 million people, making it the eighth most visited national park, according to Heidi Schlag, director of marketing and communications for the C&O Canal Trust. That’s more than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain and other big “bucket list” national parks, Schlag says.
Most of these visitors see the river in some way, whether it’s to access it through boat ramps in the park or to gaze at the river from the towpath. The trust often sponsors cleanups that remove trash from the park and the riverbanks. Because the park parallels the river, Schlag says, that ensures development will not occur along the Maryland shoreline.
If you want to spend the night along the river, you can stay in one of the park’s small hiker-biker campsites along the way. Or, for $110, you can stay in the refurbished Lockhouse 28. This rehabilitated canal lockhouse is furnished as it would have been in 1838, around the time it was built, so there’s no electricity or running water. There is a fire pit for cooking. You’ll have to pack in your supplies or bring a wagon, because it’s more than half a mile from the Point of Rocks parking area. A short trail takes you to the river.
The C&O Canal began in the 1820s because shallow, rocky portions of the river made it hard for boats to navigate upstream in the pre-railroad era. Repeated flooding caused its demise, and it closed in 1924. It became a national park in 1971.
Another campground that gives you an open view of the river is the Brunswick Family Campground. Owned by the city of Brunswick, it’s now managed by River & Trail Outfitters, which also offers guided canoe and kayak tours along the mellow waters near Brunswick. “We do a sunset float every Saturday and Sunday that’s a perfect time to catch wildlife,” says Natasha Baihly, president of River & Trail. “Bald eagles have really made a return in the last five years.”
The outfitter organizes float trips that culminate in a beer tasting at Brunswick’s Smoketown Brewery or a wine tasting at Creek’s Edge Winery across the river in Virginia. Canoe and kayak rentals and shuttle services are also offered.
“Most people who can steer a boat can handle that section,” Baihly says. Many families choose to boat or tube from Brunswick to Point of Rocks, stopping at islands along the way. “It’s a nice, continuous stretch that’s not nearly as crowded as other parts.”
Baihly’s late father, Lee Baihly, who started the outfitting company in 1972, was always fascinated by the remains of Native American fish traps that are still lodged along the river bottom and can be seen with infrared photography.
The fishing trap remains are just one example of the mix of history, wildlife and culture that the Potomac River has threaded through this region since the earliest settlers came to Frederick County.