An excerpt from the book Towns along the Towpath by Kate Mulligan:


Seneca, Maryland

Poole’s General Merchandise Store, at 16315 River Road, is about 15 minutes away by car from the upscale Potomac Shopping Center, but it’s decades away in spirit. Built in 1901, the white frame building had counters on either side and a pot-bellied stove in the middle until 1963. Even after modernization, it remains a country store with crowded aisles, farm tools and open bins of grain.

The store is the most tangible sign of modern commerce in the midst of what used to be a thriving community. During the second half of the 19th century, thousands of tons of sandstone were quarried in the area. The red stone still can be seen in well-known structures, such as the Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress.

Tschiffley Road, near the store, runs from River Road to abandoned quarries and the remains of the Seneca Stone Mill, which was the center of the sandstone industry. According to local historian Jane Sween, the Seneca Sandstone Company used the facilities of the canal, which opened in 1830, to process the sandstone. The company installed a gate in the canal west of Seneca Creek, diverting water into the plant. Mules pulled uncut sandstone boulders in gondolas out of the quarries over a narrow gauge railroad track. Water from the mill race, fed by the canal, ran the turbines, which furnished the power for cutting.

Seneca was once intended to be the starting point of a canal extension to Baltimore, an effort that never materialized. But it did become a bustling canal town during the second half of the 19th century. The canal was used for personal transportation between Seneca and Georgetown, as well as commercial shipping.

The sandstone company closed in 1900, and the canal company ended operations in 1924. The area’s natural beauty remained, however, and many loyal residents owned summer or year-round cottages. In 1957, Roy Lee Yinger, a columnist for the "Montgomery County Sentinel," wrote, "Seneca, believe an enchanting and romantic spot."

Repeated flooding—and ironically, the reincarnation of the canal as a federal park—decimated the community. Hurricane Agnes destroyed many homes, and Montgomery County officials denied owners permission to rebuild on a flood plain. In the late 1970s, federal officials bought up property to enlarge the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

For a look at what remains of this 19th-century community, begin at Poole’s store. To your left is a large white frame house constructed in 1855. Turn right off Old River Road onto Montevideo Road. At the first bend, you’ll see the Rockland-Mann Farm. Built in 1870, the house was the social center of the community and shows the use of sandstone. It has five bays, a hip roof, gable chimneys and outbuildings, including a smoke house and corn crib.

Montevideo, one of the most striking houses in the area, is out of view, down a private driveway. Surrounded by 400 acres, the house is owned by the Kiplingers, of the publishing empire. Its original builder was descendent of Martha Custis Washington.

In the Area

Pennyfield Lock is only about five miles from Great Falls Tavern, which is probably the most popular spot on the canal, but it is a scene far removed from the bustle and crowds down the towpath. Walk past two abandoned houses, complete with sagging porches, cross a footbridge to the shuttered lockkeeper’s house, which overlooks the canal.

The Potomac is in full throttle here, with an island tantalizingly close. Less than a mile upstream along the towpath is a the Dierssen Waterfowl Sanctuary, a series of ponds that attract birds and birdwatchers. The latter say that on a spring morning it’s possible to spot as many as 80 different species.

The towpath continues past beautiful cedar-topped cliffs, which turn into rolling countryside. Violette’s Lock is a favorite spot for fishing and launching canoes for the trip to Georgetown. A 2,500-foot rubble stone dam supplies water from her to Little Falls. Water skiing is popular in the slackwater behind the dam.

Riley’s Lock and Lockhouse, about a half-mile upstream along the towpath, is the canal’s version of civilization. Seneca Creek Park, which has picnic areas, public toilets, and a parking lot, adjoins the area. Seneca Aqueduct, the first of 11 aqueducts between Georgetown and Cumberland, carried canal boats over nearby Seneca Creek. At Sycamore Landing, about five miles upstream, a footbridge across the canal bed leads to Sycamore Landing Road the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Area.

Best Bets

Life by the Canal—On selected weekends, Girl Scouts dressed in period clothing tell the story of a lockkeeper and his family at the restored lockhouse at Riley’s Lock. Call 301-299-3613.

Seneca School House—Less than a mile past Poole’s Store, on the left of River Road going west, is a small building that often looks deserted. Fans of "Little House on the Prairie" will guess the purpose of this structure. Built in 1865, the Seneca School House served the local farming community for more than 45 years. Girls sat on one side of the one-room schoolhouse and boys, on the other. Heat came from a potbellied stove; water was dipped from a spring, and a solitary teacher instructed students ranging in age from six to sixteen years.

In 1980, the Historic Medley District restored the schoolhouse with the help of state funds and now administers the property. Area schoolchildren visit to learn what life was like for their counterparts 100 years ago. Call 301-972-8588.

For More Information:

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin publishes a collection of maps. Map Two covers Pennyfield Lock to Goose Creek. Check with NPS bookstores.

Sween, Jane Chinn. "Seneca." The Montgomery County Story 1 (1971). This monograph and other information about Seneca is available at the Montgomery County Historical Society Research.


The above is an excerpt from Towns along the Towpath by Kate Mulligan. The book is available by mail order from the C&O Canal Association and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and at Borders, Barnes & Noble, NPS and other independent bookstores. Wakefield Press: 1997 ($14).

From the Reviews

"a very useful guidebook to the principal towns along the canal park" Dave Johnson, Board member of American Canal Society and C&O Canal Association, Along the Towpath

"I am delighted to recommend this book. Providing detailed accounts of small cities, handsome towns, and historic sites associated with the canal, Mulligan depicts attractive destinations for vacations, weekends and day trips in one of the region ís most historic areas." Keith Melder, curator emeritus, National Museum of American History, Southwester

"Mulligan casts a generous eye on details of small town America: the festivals, the all-you-can-eat oyster feasts, the crafts. The effect, which accumulates as she proceeds from town to town, is like leisurely sifting through yellowing clippings and notebooks in an old attic. Nothing is particularly flashy and the overall picture is all the more appealing as a result." Sunil Freeman, Montgomery Magazine
Full Review (no longer available)

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