Wednesday, April 17, 2013

D&C's DC: A Field Trip to Seneca Quarries

The Smithsonian Castle is one of DC's most famous landmarks, but one aspect of it is often overlooked: the red sandstone that was used to build it. It turns out the stone was locally quarried, and much more was quarried and cut for other buildings in the area, some of which are still standing. My pal Garrett Peck recently authored an entire book about it (The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry), and also leads the occasional tour to the site, so a few weeks ago I joined him on an adventure out.

The quarries are actually right along the C&O Canal towpath, upstream from Washington. Our tour started at the Seneca Aqueduct, a landmark on the canal.

The span to the left was wiped out by a flood, and hasn't been reconstructed.

The lock keeper's house at the aqueduct.
A short distance upstream from the aqueduct, the towpath is flanked by the river on one side and a pond on t'other. Many simply regard the pond as a place for fishing, but it was actually a turning pond, where canal boats coming upstream could be loaded and turn back. If you follow a path branching off from the towpath behind the pond, you'll find some interesting ruins.

This is actually a stone-cutting mill, closed since about 1901, built of the same red sandstone that is found in a small around around here. The stone is red because of its iron content; it's a sandy gray when first quarried, but after prolonged exposure to oxygen it basically rusts, turning red-brown.

One of the astonishing things about this is how many people don't know this is there. On the tour we had some local residents who had no idea this was here.

The sluice that ran through the mill, running the water wheel that powered all the machinery.

The sluice-gate.

A broken lintel, amazingly still in place.

This image was very touching. Lorenzo Sager was a mill employee who became the son-in-law of the quarry master. As far as is known, the mill closed in 1901 (the records are spotty) and it seems he carved this as a way of bidding farewell to a place that dominated his life for a long time.

 Trees are growing in the ruins, and here a tree was blown down by a storm...but when it fell, it dragged up some of the flagstones from the original floor, and a rail from the narrow-gauge railway that took stone from the quarries to the mill. These are lost under the years of dirt and leaves that accumulated on top.

 These are foundations of fence posts at Lafayette Square, removed during security renovations, and returned to the site of the quarry.

This flower bed is probably over a century old, at the site of one of the quarry buildings, or where a worker lived.

A stone, set in the ground, with a hole. No idea what it's for.

One of the quarries, now overgrown.

Water seepage at the quarry site.

These eyelets guided cables that dragged blocks of stone.

The quarry master's house, now a private residence. On the hill over the quarries. The walls are native sandstone cut in different styles, probably as a sort of built-in advertising.

An old car, riddled with bullets. There's signs of bootlegging in the area, and who knows if this was really gunned down or just used for target practice over the years.

This overgrown gulch is the remains of the Bull Run quarry.

Another one of the Seneca Quarries.

This area is called the Rock Garden, for obvious reasons.
It's difficult to explore there in warmer months, as it becomes too overgrown with brambles and creepers and poison ivy. But this is a great spot for exploring; the map in Garrett's book points to a worker's cemetery that I wanted to check out but didn't have time. Next fall, I think. Seneca sandstone is no longer quarried, largely because it fell out of style and in the long run is not an ideal building material, as it degrades over time. Still, for adventuring, there's nothing like an old quarry to stir the blood.

Check out Garrett's book for more information and history, if you're so inclined. If you're one of those who hikes or bikes the canal, consider this for a side trip.


Paula Wiley said...

Back in the 1970s there was a stream of water that ran through the stones at part of the quarry and locals (myself included) used to bring gallon jugs and capture the water to take home. It was very clear and purified from its journey through those stones. That location has since been "dug out" and replaced with buildings of some sort. My son fondly remembers our regular Saturday trips over there when he was a child and our ever-present jugs of clear drinking water in the fridge.

J Bailey said...

Hiked by the mill today and it seems to be rapidly disintegrating. Thanks for all of the information.