Tucked in the snaking suburban streets of Loudoun County, Virginia are the remnants of a construction project gone wrong. This isn’t some formerly up-and-coming neighborhood that fell victim to the housing bust. This failure is a hundred-fifty years old. Look deep into the heart of these ruins, though, and you can sense the pulse of the men who created them, even after all these years.
The Goose Creek Canal looks much as you would expect after a century-and-a-half of neglect: forgotten and grown over, slowly yielding to erosion and weather. It’s a stretch of the imagination to think this was once the great hope of the rural interior of the Northern Virginia counties of Loudoun and Fauquier, but here it is.
Two views of the old canal bed
The Goose Creek and Little River Navigation Company embarked on the project in the 1830s and 40s to improve twenty miles of rocky, meandering waterways with a series of locks, dams and canals, ultimately giving farmers and millers ready access to large markets. Much to backers’ chagrin, however, the project was blindsided from several directions.
There was trouble raising money and cost overruns. Passable roads and railroads made the canal obsolete while construction was still underway. Workmen completed only twelve of the hoped-for twenty miles. One single boat, a test barge, is known to have traversed the whole canal, and it had to be dragged over sandbars.
The company dissolved in 1857 with these blunt words from the president: “The effort to make Goose creek and Little river navigable by locks and dams may now be admitted to have been a failure.” There was less than two dollars in the company’s bank account.
Left: Goose Creek, Right: A pile of boulders probably removed from the canal bed
Much of what’s left of this doomed effort is preserved at Kephart Bridge Landing at Elizabeth Mills Riverfront Park, a natural oasis amid endless iterations of Greater Washington D.C.’s sprawling suburbia (here it is on Google Maps). There, on the wooded banks of the Potomac River and Goose Creek, are the remnants of the canal, now little more than a ripple on the forest floor, a hiccup on the reclaimed landscape. A couple footpaths ramble through this forested strip of land.
At spots these trails come to old workings that nature is having a little more trouble taking back, especially Clapham’s lock, one of several locks that once lifted boats to meet Goose Creek’s rising elevation. The living forest has long since made itself at home on the masonry. Trees and vines spill over the sharp edges, a super slow-motion cascade. The artistry of the stonework still holds firm, however, despite nature’s onslaught.
Clapham’s lock near Goose Creek’s confluence with the Potomac River
And that’s what gets me, and what’s driving this whole project about disappearing history along: that lock was someone’s best effort, perhaps the most important thing he did in his life. Craftsmen constructed that one lock, not to mention the eight others along the length of this ill-fated project, with expertise and a careful hand cultivated only by a lifetime of experience and affection for their work. When the masons laid those stones, they must have had some sense of importance and anticipation.
It’s hard to say all these years later how they must have felt to see their work cast aside so soon, but they’d probably find a little comfort knowing their craftsmanship long outlived the doomed venture that needed their skill to come together in the first place.