Rowsers Ford, Part 2

In the first post on Rowsers Ford, I focused on General J.E.B. Stuart’s crossing on the night of June 27-28, 1863.  Now I turn to discuss what I know of the site’s history and look at the landmarks that can aid with interpretation of the site.

Rowsers Ford Vicinity, McDowell Map

First off, the location of Rowsers Ford had much to do with Seneca Falls.  The river drops between 7 and 10 feet over the span of a mile as it passes over an erosion resistant section of bedrock.  While not as impressive as Great Falls, the rapids at Seneca Falls were an impediment to river traffic.  As mentioned in the first post, the Patowmack Canal Company built a skirting canal on the Virginia side of the river to get boat traffic upstream.  The abutments for the canal still stand at some points along the river bank.

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Abutments of the Potowmack Canal, Virginia Side

When the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal began construction beyond Great Falls in the late 1820s, it built Dam No. 2 at the head of Seneca Falls, taking advantage of the rock as a foundation.  The main section of the dam ran perpendicular to the river flow, but angled downstream near the Maryland shore.  There River Lock No. 2 allowed water to pass into the C&O Canal.

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River Lock No. 2

The river lock fed water to locks down stream from Canal Lock 23, also known as Violettes Lock.

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Canal Lock 23

The company had grand plans to utilize the dam for mill works.  “Rushville” on the Maryland side appears as a cluster of buildings on the McDowell map.   The river lock also drew in traffic from the Virginia side of the river (in a similar arrangement to that at Edwards Ferry).   The only trace of such activity are several old road traces leading down to the Potomac today.

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Trail / Road Trace leading from Seneca Road to Rowsers Ford

Down stream from the locks, and dominating the waterway, is Blockhouse Point.

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Seneca Falls from Blockhouse Point

Overlooking the maze of islands and the rapids of Seneca Falls, Blockhouse Point is named for the guard installations placed there during the Civil War.  The view at that time was perhaps even better, because fewer trees stood along the river.  But as related earlier, the position was unmanned at the time Stuart crossed.   In the view above notice the high ground on the opposite (Virginia) shore.  This prominence stands just downstream of Lowes Island and what is called the Old Channel of Sugarland Run on the McDowell map.   The high ground sits in the way on the Virginia shore where potential crossing points existed.

All of these landmarks – river, hills, falls, dam, canals, and locks – existed at the time of Stuart’s crossing.  And each to some extent can tell us where Stuart did or did not cross.  The location of the high ground on the Virginia side is important in that regard.  As one can see from even a distance, the ground slopes down sharply to the river bottom.   The crossing site, or sites, had to be on either side of that hill.  I’ve annotated the location of the landmarks and added the trace of road traces and foot trails on a Google Earth image below:

Vicinity of Rowsers Ford Today

The key landmarks are noted in red.  To the lower left are parts of the road and trail network on the Virginia side.  Seneca Road ends just above the bottom edge of the map, but a foot trail (indicated in green) continues down the slope and around the hill in question.  A modern access road joins the trail there, traced in blue.  Near that intersection an old road trace leads down to the river (indicated in yellow).   Another trail leads from Seneca Road, down the east slope of the hill, to the Potomac (marked in purple).

Star # 1 is the approximate location of the Potowmack canal abutments seen above.  That is the furthest upstream anyone might have made the first “jump” into the Potomac, assuming the men used an “island hopping” approach.

Star #2 is at the junction of the old skirting canal and the old channel of Sugerland Run. If you follow the road on the McDowell Map as a reference, then Rowsers Ford was here.

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Mouth of Old Channel Sugarland Run and Potowmack Canal

Looking downstream from the same position illustrates the earlier point about the slope of the hill.  Look at the right side of the photo below.

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Downstream on the Potowmack Canal

Clearly horse-drawn artillery would have issues maneuvering around and down that hill.

Stuart’s account does not say specifically that all of the command crossed at a single point, and in fact almost infers that two paths were used – one for the cavalry and one for the artillery.  (Personally I believe all of the command crossed at point #2.)   If indeed the artillery crossed downstream as alluded to, my guess is that point was near that indicated by star #3 on the map above.  Unfortunately, at the time of my last visit the underbrush had grown enough to prevent a good photo of the channel.   (I’ll endeavor to brave the elements in the fall to secure a proper photo!)

Regardless of where the Confederates stepped into the river channel, they had roughly 800 to 1000 yards to traverse.  If the river bottom has not changed significantly in the years since the war, the troopers and gunners contended with rocks, a maze of river channels, and suck-holes.  The river was, as noted both in Stuart’s report and that of the Union forces crossing at Edwards Ferry, high due to recent rains.  But at least Stuart’s troopers benefited from good illumination that night.

You’ll notice I have tagged this post as “Needing a marker.”  Sadly, for all the significance to the Gettysburg Campaign, Rowsers Ford is poorly and confusingly interpreted by historical markers.  One Maryland marker stands along Violettes Lock Road, and in my opinion that is the only properly placed marker.   A Civil War Trails marker titled Rowsers Ford stands at Seneca Aqueduct and Lock Number 24, nearly a mile away, and has confused more than a few visitors.   Worse yet, on the Virginia side, state marker number T-38, titled “Gettysburg Campaign,” stands near the Northern Virginia Community College – Loudoun Campus along Potomac View Road.  According to the marker, Stuart passed by on his way to Gettysburg.  By my estimate, Stuart got no closer than three miles from that marker!

I would hope some day we can have a set of interpretive markers in place along the trails at the end of Seneca Road.

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2 responses to “Rowsers Ford, Part 2

  1. Orlando Spalding

    Craig,

    Great coverage of Jeb Stuart’s crossing at Rowser’s Ford. The entrance of the Patowmack Canal is actually just downstream of Dam No. 2. The bypass channel upstream of the dam on the Virginia shore that joins with old Sugarland run may have been a race for a sawmill that has been widened over the years by flood waters. I suspect that you are correct about the crossing location. The profile of Dam no. 2 is much more visible on the Virginia shore. A short section still remains on the river bank. It consists of relatively smooth stone laid over rubble. I could send a photo if you are interested. There is an 1864 Hotchkiss Map that labels “Rowser’s Ford” with a location just downstream of the dam. No matter where it crossing was, it was quite a feat!
    regards,
    Orlando Spalding

  2. Craig: Did you ever request/receive Orlando’s offering regarding a photo of the short section of Dam no. 2 which supposedly still resides on the Virginia-side of the river bank, consisting of relatively smooth stone laid over rubble? I’d also love to see that Hotchkiss Map labeling “Rowser’s Ford” downstream of the dam. If not, is there anyway of getting in touch with Orlando? P.S. Have you read anything regarding Col. Charles Lowell doing a reconn. with the 2nd Mass. Cav. very close to where/when Stuart crossed @ Rowser’s Ford? Pretty interesting stuff…. Your buddy, Jim Lewis