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A Bike Trip on the C & O Canal Towpath from Point of Rocks to Seneca

The trail is 26 miles in length, all but the first six through a wide bend of the Potomac, known from Colonial times as the “Potomac Horseshoe.”

Biking the Canal:  Mileage along the canal is measured from the mouth of Rock Creek in Georgetown: Point of Rocks, for example, is near Mile 48, and Seneca just below Mile 23. Most of the old mileage markers are gone, but newer ones installed by the National Park Service are pretty much intact. About every five or six miles is a “Hiker-Biker” camp with a water pump and outhouse.

Parking: Since the trail is not a loop, park one car at the end in Seneca, where refreshments can be found, and drive with your bikes to the B & O Railroad Station at Point of Rocks, where there is parking in a small lot just off Route 28. Point of Rocks has two small grocery stores and a gas station which you may wish to visit.  Access to the Canal towpath can be made easier by parking at the far west end of the lot. In addition, there is limited parking near the Canal towpath that can be accessed by taking either Commerce Street or Monroe Street off Route 28, and crossing the railroad tracks and wooden bridge to the parking lot. From the station walk your bicycle about three hundred yards west along the railroad tracks (toward town) to the bridge over the C & O Canal. Across the bridge on the left, a vehicular gate marks the canal towpath which you will follow to Seneca.

1. Point of Rocks Station
The Gothic Revival Station House with its colorful stone and brick work was built in 1875 to celebrate the railroad’s success in joining to its original line from Baltimore the new Metropolitan Branch, completed to Point of Rocks from Washington in 1873.

2. Point of Rocks
An early settlement called Trammelstown stood on the heights above Route 28 until the canal and railroad arrived in the 1830’s, stimulating the growth of the present town. Point of Rocks became a market and shipping center, and today, thanks to the railroad, has several large industries and a new subdivision whose residents can commute to Washington on the Metropolitan Branch.

3. C & O Canal Pivot Bridge
Until a permanent bridge was set on the old pivot bridge abutments after 1924, wagon drivers and canallers could swing the bridge to suit them – by means of a pivot device on the central pier. The bridge could be set across the canal or turned sideways to let canal boats pass by in the space between the pier and canal bank.

4. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
After crossing the bridge, study the old canal ditch for a minute. It was prism-shaped (60 feet wide at the top) and lined with clay to prevent precious water from percolating out.

The towpath, built and repaired with local rock and top dressing, is maintained by the National Park Service, and makes a continuous 184-mile hiking and biking trail from the canal’s old terminus at Cumberland to Rock Creek in Georgetown.

5. Calico Rocks Hiker-Biker Camp
Calico Rocks was named for strata of conglomerate rock in which quartz and limestone cobbles are set like nuts in a fruitcake, interbedded in larger deposits of red sandstone and shale (called “redstone”) which form intermittent bluffs along the canal to Seneca. It occurs locally along the adjacent roadbed of the B & O’s Metropolitan Branch from here to below Camp Kanawha where it outcrops spectacularly.

6. Heater’s Island
The far shore seen below Kanawha Springs is not Virginia, but a large floodplain island – once the site of an Indian village and now a State of Maryland Wildlife Refuge.

7. Camp Kanawha
Marked by docking facilities along the Potomac, and an earthen bridge that leads over the canal, the camp clubhouse is hidden. Other private fishing clubs between the canal and the river were removed a number of years ago, and their former locations are difficult to see.

Please watch for Bald Eagle nesting activity in this area, because pairs of our increasing Eagle population are taking advantage of this great location to raise families.

8. Frederick County Water Intake
Modern necessity has masked its intentions behind a traditional façade, in this case a water intake that looks like an old mill. The Frederick Metropolitan Commission (the County’s water and sewer agency) has cooperated with the National Park Service by building a structure of local limestone that respects its setting.

9. Noland’s Ferry
Just below the Frederick water intake, are red sandstone abutments on either side of the towpath where the Canal Company built a bridge to carry the old Carolina Road over the canal to a ford slightly downriver.

10. Tuscarora Creek
The creek was named for bands of Tuscarora Indians who camped in the area from 1712-14 during their migration to New York State from North Carolina. Along with the creek, a small settlement and post office a few miles north on Route 28 retain the name.

11. Indian Flats Hiker-Biker Camp
“Indian Flats” is a traditional name for the extensive “flats” between the canal and the railroad from Tuscarora Creek to the Monocacy River, where archeologists have documented millennia of Indian use and occupation.

12. Monocacy River Aqueduct
Over the seven-arch aqueduct, 516 feet long, canal boats glided through the watered trough, and mules clattered across the stone parapet where hikers and cyclists now walk. Monocacy was the longest of eleven stone aqueducts on the canal.

13. Monocacy Basin and Granary
Just past the aqueduct, the canal opens into a wide basin abutting a small parking lot and the foundations of a former granary.

14. Little Monocacy Culvert
One of the largest culverts on the canal, it was repaired recently by the National Park Service. Streams larger than the Little Monocacy were generally bridged by aqueducts.

15. Boyd’s Mill
Overgrown chimney ruins between the canal and river are said to mark the site of a house and mill built by Dr. Charles Boyd in the late 18th century.

16. Lock 27 – Spinks Ferry
The ferry, like its competitor at Noland’s three miles upstream, operated from the Virginia shore. Lock and lockhouse were built about 1831: here, when the wooden gates were in place, canal boats were raised or lowered about eight feet to overcome a gradient between this lock and the next one.

17. PEPCO Power Plant
Compare PEPCO’s treatment of the canal with that of the Frederick Metropolitan Commission, especially the large concrete intake structure on the right. The plant began operation about 1959. A third smokestack, built in 1977 is 750 feet tall.

18. Dickerson Regional Park
Marked by the parking lot and earth causeway on the berm, it is an area used mostly by fishermen. Its development will be coordinated by its owner, the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission, with National Park Service master plans for the canal.

19. Lock 26 (Wood’s Lock)
An old road came down the hill on the berm that may have led to the little-known White’s Ford.

20. White’s Ford
A little-known crossing near Wood’s Lock, it was used by Confederate troops on raids and major campaigns to and from Maryland.

21. Mason Island
Another large floodplain island close to the canal, it is still farmed. Listen for the sound of rapids – several V-shaped rock dams line the channel, probably built as fishtraps by Indians who put nets or wooden baskets at the point of the V.

22. Marble Quarry Hiker-Biker
The “marble” is another vein of calico rock that outcrops back of the sandstone bluffs on the berm.

23. Osage Orange Hedge
In lieu of wooden fencing or barbed wire, upcounty farmers planted thorny osage orange hedges to confine their livestock.  Remnants of such a hedge line a former pasture that ran up to the edge of the towpath; their green fruits (which can be found on the towpath in autumn) are about the size of softballs.

24. White’s Ferry
The “upper” and companion ferry to Edwards Ferry (five miles below), it has connected the market towns of Poolesville and Leesburg since the late 18th century.

25. Haunted House Bend
Across the river at Ball’s Bluff, 1700 Union troops were overwhelmed by Confederate forces on October 12, 1861, many of them driven into the river and drowned. (See SRT Potomac Crossroads Canoe Trail). Wounded from the battle were carried to local barns and farmyards where their cries, heard in the night by passing canallers, may have contributed to later reports of “haunts.”

26. Broad Run Trunk
The “trunk” was really a wooden aqueduct across Broad run, built in the winter of 1856-57 to replace a two-arch culvert destroyed by a freshet on Broad Run earlier in the year.

The wooden trunk, or “flume,” set on stone abutments, is the only wooden aqueduct on the canal, and an example of how the canal company adapted to worsening economic and environmental conditions.

27. Lock 25 and Edwards Ferry
The “lower” ferry connecting Poolesville and River Road to nearby Leesburg was, like White’s Ferry, an important storage and shipping point for local farmers, and continued in operation until 1936.

28. Goose Creek River Lock
In the 1830’s, before the advent of the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad (later the Washington and Old Dominion), farmers along Goose Creek looked to the C & O Canal as a tie to Washington area mills and markets. The Goose Creek and Little River Navigation Company was incorporated in Virginia on March 15, 1832 to canalize Goose Creek.

29. Summit Hall Turf Farm
About 700 acres of flat alluvial fields are farmed in three-year cycles of grasses by the Summit Hall Turf Farm. Other turf farms adjoin the canal above Edwards Ferry, called into being by the demand for turf to re-sod lands cleared for metropolitan area subdivisions.

30. Sycamore Landing
Remembered by canallers as “rope harbor,” the landing is marked by a wooden bridge that crosses the canal to a small parking lot. Loads of oyster shells shipped from Herbert Bryant’s in Alexandria to Sycamore and other canal landings helped farmers “sweeten” acid soils.

31. McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area
A 1,475 acre tract around and below Sycamore Landing, owned by the State of Maryland, part is managed as a wildlife sanctuary and part is open to public hunting on a permit basis. In it are many acres of valuable swamp and marshland.

32. Seneca Sandstone Quarries
Where the sandstone bluffs begin on the left was one of several quarries that adjoin the canal for the next mile, this one owned by the Federal Government and used in many 19th century construction projects, including the water supply aqueduct for Washington, DC. Across the marshy land north of the bluffs grew a settlement of free black quarrymen, some of whose descendents still live in the Seneca area. Other quarries and ruins are to be found further down the canal.

33. Seneca Marsh
A wide spot in the canal, it served as a turning basin and dockage for boats loading sandstone from the nearby stone mill. Ruins of the mill are at the northeast (lower) end of the basin, reached by crossing a causeway over the canal and cycling back toward the basin. (For the history of the Seneca Area see SRT’s “Seneca Sandstone Biking Trail.”)

34. Seneca Aqueduct and Lock 24 (Riley’s Lock)
Both are made of dressed Seneca “redstone,” as were all the locks, lockhouses and culverts between Seneca and Point of Rocks. Riley’s is the only case on the canal where a lock directly abuts an aqueduct.

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