My Virginia- Great Falls- by author Joseph J. O’Donnell

  In the continuing series of ‘My Virginia’ my photographer son, Joseph O’Donnell IV, and I recently took a trip to Great Falls and Mather Gorge. The Great Falls Park is run by the National Park Service and is located in Northern Virginia along the Potomac River. The river itself is the borderline between Virginia and Maryland and it has been a National attraction since the our country was first founded. The gorge was named after Stephen T. Mather, the first National Park Service director.

There is a canal running along it that was set up by the Patowmack Company in 1784 which constructed a series of five canals to make the river navigable as a water route between the Chesapeake Bay and the interior of Virginia. It was overseen by George Washington who’s dream was to connect the East with the Ohio Valley and bind the country together in a framework of trade and mutual interest.

During its hay-day the canal provided commercial transportation along its 190-mile length and it took three days to travel between Cumberland and Georgetown. Products such as timber, flour, corn, whiskey, furs, tobacco, and iron ore were poled down the river on flatboats to their final destination.

  There is also the remnants of the town of Matildaville within the park. It was originally sponsored by the Revolutionary War hero ‘Lighthorse Harry’ Lee and flourished for nearly thirty years but declined in the 1820’s. The canal itself was eventually sold to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company who added it to their ambitious canal system to connect Pittsburg Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. The full length of the C&O canal was never completed and the project succumbed to labor disputes, lack of money and rivalry with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The remnants of the C&O Canal can be still found on the Maryland side of the river.

There are many great sites within the park such as the Great Falls and Mather Gorge, along with Aqueduct Dam on the northern perimeter. Walking along the River Trail and the rocky outcrops, as well as rock climbing in the gorge, is more meant for those with firm of foot as well as of heart. Other pathways such as Old Carriage Road and Matildaville Trail are great for a day’s stroll. Picnicking at the park has been well established and there is plenty parking available, too. A large visitor center and tourist facilities is located by the parking area.

Our photographer has included a number of great photographs for our readers to accompany this story to give a visual insight for all the park offers. For more information you may contact the park at (703)-285-2965 or at


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