Week Nine #explorethereserve: Seneca and Rileys Lock
Welcome to #explorethereserve week nine, the first in 2021! This week’s visit to the historic Seneca area vividly shows why Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve is a jewel that should be protected and appreciated for its beauty, history, and resources.
WHAT IS EXPLORE THE RESERVE?
This community outreach project highlights weekly locations with ideas for getting off screens and heading outside to improve mental and physical health, explore our corner of MoCo, and provide inspiration for COVID-safe adventures in and near the Ag Reserve.
Click here to read more about #explorethereserve. Check out past #explorethereserve adventures linked at the bottom of this post.
Seneca Historic District
Seneca, once a thriving mill and agricultural town, now holds tremendous history, scenic beauty, and recreation opportunities. Roughly the area south of River Road between Partnership Road and Violette’s Lock Road and up along Seneca Creek itself, it was named for an Iroquois tribe, the name meaning “people of the standing rock”.
For many centuries, this resource-rich area had been in use by Native Americans for hunting, fishing, and farming and River Road is built upon a Native American trail. The first documented European settler was Henry Thickpenny in 1722. During this period in history, water power was highly sought after to power mills and around 1732, and the first mill was built in Seneca. The area was populated by settlers of various European descent and enslaved African-Americans. In later years, the C&O Canal would be in operation along the Potomac River and Seneca became a bustling small town. Post-emancipation, many African-Americans gave birth to their own communities around Poolesville, including Sugarland. (Scroll down to the Dig Deeper resources section of this post to learn more about Seneca and the historical homes located here.)
Today, visitors to the Seneca historic district have myriad options for year-round recreation–boating, hiking, and exploring historic structures, now parts of the C&O Canal National Park, Seneca Creek State Park, and Montgomery County Parks. Different sections have varying levels of accessibility and there are portapotties (one ADA) in the far parking lot closest to the Canal.
Just east of Partnership Road on River Road, this beautiful red Seneca sandstone schoolhouse was built in 1866 to educate local children from white families who lived and worked in the area. The local Historic Medley District historical society maintains the schoolhouse and grounds. It is available for field trips, event rentals, and is open to the public during history events. Even if closed to the public, it is a lovely spot for photos. Just up and across River Road, you can see the historic farm and home, Montevideo, once owned by a descendent of George Washington. You can park along River Road and peer over the fence; there is also a rear gravel parking area that is usually gated. From my observation, like many historical buildings this is not an easily accessible space for someone who can’t walk long distances on uneven ground or needs to use a wheelchair.
C&O Canal Lock 24, RILEY’S Lockhouse, & Seneca Creek
Turn off River Road onto Rileys Lock Road to reach Lock 24, the only combined lift lock and aqueduct on the C&O Canal, built from Seneca red sandstone in 1832. Riley’s is named for its last lock keeper, son of an Irish immigrant who worked in the nearby quarry. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Riley assumed the duty of lockkeeper for many years. Local Girl Scouts in period costume open the Seneca red sandstone lockhouse for tours on select weekends in the fall and spring (May currently be on hold due to COVID safety restrictions). The towpath is not easily accessible at this point–the lockhouse is built on a steep incline and is accessed via steep wooden stairs or a rutted dirt and stone path.
Home to Calleva River School and a Team River Runner site, it’s a popular spot for launching boats into the Potomac or paddling and splashing around in Seneca Creek itself, with a dedicated boat ramp along the creek. There is a paved boat ramp area ideal for trailers that also features a notice board with important information about river safety. Make sure you check water levels before heading out. Closest to River Road, there is a recently refurbished County park with ADA parking, a new floating accessible kayak launch dock, and an accessible paved picnic area with tables and grills, in addition to tables and grills on natural ground.
This dedication to democratizing access for all was sadly not always the case; after the Canal closed, this section of Seneca Creek was a popular recreation destination and even featured a hotel but a Jim Crow-era covenant forbid African-Americans from purchasing property here. Years of severe flooding damaged many of the summer cottages and businesses along the creek and many sites were purchased for parkland. Today, everyone is welcome to use this area for recreation. Please note that the Potomac River is not a safe body of water for swimming, though some of its stretches may look placid and inviting.
Seneca Slackwater & Canal Dam #2
From Rileys, take the C&O Canal towpath downstream to Mile 22 and you will notice the remains of a rubble dam in the Potomac River near Violette’s Lock. Various floods destroyed this dam project but the area is still well-used by boaters and birdwatchers. Online sources refer to this area as Seneca Slackwater or Seneca Lake. Originally, the C&O Canal company wanted to build a manfacuating town at this spot but the plans never moved forward and the community of Rushville never came into being.
Seneca Quarry, Stone cutting Mill, & Canal Turning Basin
From Rileys, take the C&O Canal towpath upstream to Mile 22.8 and notice the wide turning basin pond, designed for canal boats to maneuver with ease. Also in this area upstream and on the inland side of the C&O, look for the remains of the Seneca Stonecutting Quarry and Mill, part of Seneca State Park. This quarry dates back to 1781 and its stone cutting mill around 1837.
As you become familiar with the Ag Reserve, you may have been noticing a beautiful red stone widely used in its buildings. Known as red Seneca sandstone, it was quarried here for many years. The Smithsonian castle and Cabin John bridge were built with stone from here and other varieties of local stone were also cut here and used in the Capitol building and Washington Monument. Seneca red sandstone was unique for being soft and workable when first quarried but hardens over time to be durable.
Prior to the Civil War, most quarry workers were enslaved; after the War many local African-American workers who remained were joined by Irish immigrants. The quarry and mill were closed in 1900 due to declining revenues and stone quality. Upstream from the quarry area, there is also a historic African-American cemetery, known as the Clipper Family or Stonecutter Cemetery, overgrown and resting like the quarry and mill itself.
The ruins of the quarry and mill buildings are incredibly overgrown in summer; they are best visited during winter months when vegetation has died back. If you pass through this area in spring, you may see daffodils and other spring bulbs in bloom, marking where homes of the quarry workers once stood years ago. The history of the quarry and mill are fascinating; scroll down to the Dig Deeper resources section of this post for an excellent book on their history.
Seneca Store, Darby House, & Seneca Trails
From Rileys, cross over River Road to find the Seneca Store and Darby House along Seneca Creek. This store site dates back to 1901 when it had been relocated from an original spot closer to the C&O Canal that was too flood-prone. It has been a general store serving the local community for decades and now offers farm and garden supplies such as animal feed and starter plants. Step into the store for a trip back in time.
Just behind the store, the beautiful Upton Darby House dates back to 1855 when it was built for the owners of the now-vanished Seneca Ford Mill and adjacent store. Now owned by Montgomery County. Peering over the fence, you can glimpse the local Seneca red sandstone that makes up its foundation.
Seneca Creek State Park reaches down to Seneca Creek. At this point, there are 2 trails to choose from: the Greenway trail, which parallels the creek and the Bluffs trail which does the same from a higher elevation. Both feature beautiful views of the creek and are natural surface trails with elevation and rough spots.
Seneca is an area rich with history, shaped by natural forces, and a wonderful year-round recreation destination for all. In warmer weather, I’d love to try tubing from Berryville Road down to Seneca. Until then, I’ll enjoy the crisp winter air and plenty of elbow room on its trails.
OPTIONS & IDEAS FOR WEEK Nine #EXPLORETHERESERVE: Seneca & RileyS Lock
- Bike or hike the towpath
- Hike the Seneca Creek State Park Bluffs or Greenway trail
- Explore the Potomac in a canoe, kayak, SUP, or other boat
- Enjoy Seneca Creek in a boat, tube, or just splashing around. Avoid direct contact with water after heavy rains when there may be increased runoff from roads or farms and be careful of submerged branches.
- Learn to kayak with Calleva’s River School
- Bring binoculars to observe bird life along the creek, Canal, and river
- Bring a camera to document the natural and historic beauty of this area
- Bring a sketchpad or journal and let yourself be inspired
- Bring fishing gear for the creek and river
- Pack a picnic to enjoy–remember to take all trash with you to dispose of at home
DIG DEEPER INTO LOCAL HISTORY, NATURE, & CULTURE
- Bread and Beauty: A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve This wonderfully photographed cookbook captures not just the beauty and flavors of the Ag Reserve but its history and people too.
- C&O Canal Companion This comprehensive mile-by-mile guide is an incredible look into the history and features of the Canal.
- I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland This compelling book contains maps and beautiful historic photos. 100% of proceeds benefit the Sugarland Ethno History Project.
- A Year Across Maryland: A Week by Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region Highlights the best time to observe and experience various plants, animals, and experiences in the nature of Maryland.
(AFFILIATE MARKETING NOTICE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you purchase a book from any of the Amazon links above, I will earn a small commission fee.)
Websites & Organizations
- C&O Canal Trust This non-profit organization is dedicated to maintaining the history of the C&O Canal and offers overnight stays in selected lockhouses.
- Historic Homes of the Ag Reserve This amazing blog highlights beautiful properties of the Ag Reserve and their history.
- Historic Medley District This local historical society preserves the heritage of Western Montgomery County.
- Seneca Historic District This nomination form collects the history, houses, and features of this area in detail.
- Sugarloaf Trails: Native American Heritage This fantastic resource illuminates the first peoples who lived in this area and offers a trail modern visitors can follow to learn more.
SUPPORT AG RESERVE LOCAL BUSINESSES
While you’re out and about, help support local businesses by stopping in for a snack or meal. Please check operating days and hours via business websites and social media. Many of these are small, family-run operations with funky opening hours/days. I recommend:
- Cafe 107 Grab a quick bite to eat or a coffee
- The Healthy Hub Healthy smoothies, energy teas, and light bites
- Mexican Grill Best Mexican food in MoCo
- Rocklands Farm Historic farm, vineyard, and great picnic spot–the gorgeous Italianate farmhouse here is constructed of Seneca sandstone
- Savage & Sons Farm This family’s farm store offers local meats, eggs, and food products, including local honey.
- Windridge Vineyards Vino and food trucks with a view
LET’S KEEP EXPLORING THE AG RESERVE
New adventures will be posted each Wednesday morning on the Taste Travel Teach website and linked via the Taste Travel Teach FB page.
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Thanks for reading and taking part in #explorethereserve. I hope you enjoyed learning, exploring, and discovering more about Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve.
ABOUT TASTE TRAVEL TEACH & CHRISTINE RAI
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Copyright Christine Rai, 2021