This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program,
Explorations. Join us today as we travel along the Potomac River
in the eastern United States. The Potomac is one of America¡¯s
most historic waterways.
((SOUND: River noises)
The Potomac River flows more than six-hundred kilometers from
the Allegheny Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, on the Atlantic
Ocean coast. The river flows through West Virginia, Maryland,
and Virginia. It also flows through the United States capital,
The Potomac is the wildest river in the world that flows through
a heavily populated area. It supplies water for more than eighty
percent of the four-million people who live in the Washington
area. Millions of people use the river and the land nearby for
recreational activities. These include boating, fishing, hiking
and bird watching. The area is home to important birds such
as the great blue heron and the American bald eagle.
The Potomac River has played an important part in American
history. For example, America¡¯s first President,
George Washington, lived for many years along the Potomac in
Virginia. He urged that the river be developed to link Americans
with the West.
We will explore the Potomac River in a small boat called a
canoe that we move through the water using sticks called paddles.
Our trip will take seven or eight days. The boat has only enough
space for two or three people. But we will not be alone on the
water. Other canoes float nearby.
We start in the calm waters of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
A guide in the boat next to us says people lived here fifteen-thousand
years ago. The Potomac River was a meeting place for American
Indians long before Europeans arrived. The Indians gathered
to trade food and furs. Today, people often find objects that
the Indians left behind.
We work hard to paddle our canoe, and are happy to stop and
rest at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. During the nineteenth
century, this village was an important transportation center
for the river, a smaller waterway and a railroad. At Harpers
Ferry, the Potomac flows through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here
it meets the Shenandoah River. From our boat we can see the
water flowing toward huge rocks. Green trees cover the mountains
on either side. Round white clouds hang low against a blue sky.
It looks very peaceful.
(Photo - David T. Gilbert/National Park Service)
But this area is not known for peace. In eighteen-fifty-nine,
the United States was close to civil war between the northern
and southern states. The federal government had a weapons center
at Harpers Ferry. John Brown, a militant who was against slavery,
decided to raid it. Historians believe he did this to provide
slaves with weapons for a rebellion.
John Brown and eighteen of his supporters captured the weapons
center. However, federal troops recaptured the center the next
day. John Brown was later hanged. But his name was made famous
forever by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote
that although Brown had died, his spirit would march on.
Harpers Ferry became a national historical park in nineteen-forty-four.
Today the park welcomes visitors who come to learn about life
along the river. The park also operates a program to restore
an important bird, the peregrine falcon, to the area. About
fifty years ago, the use of the insect-killing chemical D-D-T
had almost killed all these large birds. D-D-T was banned in
nineteen-seventy-two. Wildlife experts now bring baby peregrines
from the Chesapeake Bay area. Then they place the birds in rocky
areas high above the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry.
The baby birds wear a device that sends signals telling where
there are. The devices let wildlife experts follow the birds¡¯
movements. They hope that before too long, many peregrines again
will fly in these skies.
Most of the time we paddle smoothly over the Potomac. But sometimes
the river is wild. George Washington understood that the Potomac
was difficult to travel on, even for much bigger boats than
ours. He proposed a waterway to avoid dangerous places on the
river. But he did not live to see it built. Washington died
in seventeen-ninety-nine. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was
built more than twenty-five years later.
Over the years, continued flooding from the Potomac damaged
the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Today it no longer carries goods.
Instead, the C-and-O Canal is a national park. Kayaks and barges
float on the waterway, passing through devices called locks.
The locks close off the canal and use special gates to raise
or lower the boats. They do this by raising or lowering the
The area between the Potomac River and the canal is called
a towpath. The towpath extends about three-hundred kilometers
from Washington, D-C, to Cumberland, Maryland.
(Photo - Steve Ember)
Today we see families walking their dogs along the towpath.
Other people are running or riding their bicycles. Still others
Now we are getting close to Washington, D-C. Here the river
begins to look dangerous. Signs warn boats away from the twenty-four
kilometers of the Potomac Gorge. So we leave our canoe to walk
along the towpath.
Water moves fast in the gorge. There are many rocks and waterfalls.
The gorge begins above a large waterfall called Great Falls.
Here the water drops to sea level. The gorge then extends to
Theodore Roosevelt Island, named for America¡¯s twenty-sixth
president. Here we get a quick look at a blue heron. This beautiful
bird stands for a minute on a rock on one long, thin leg. An
eagle spreads its wide wings in the sky, but does not land.
(Photo - Avery A. Drake Jr./U.S. Geological Survey)
We take land transportation to follow the river into America¡¯s
capital. Washington, D-C was built on a low wetland area in
eighteen-hundred. The British burned the city in eighteen-twelve.
But Americans soon rebuilt it.
Central part of the Potomac
(Photo - NASA)
While in Washington, we decide to continue our trip on the Potomac
River in a larger boat for visitors. This will take us past
George Washington¡¯s home in Virginia. He helped
design the big white house, called Mount Vernon. George Washington
and his wife, Martha, are buried on the property.
Today we see sheep and goats eating grass on the hill between
the back of the house and the river. This sight probably looks
about the same as it did when George Washington supervised his
beautiful riverside farm.
(Photo - U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
After passing Mount Vernon, we end our trip on the Potomac River
as it flows toward the Chesapeake Bay. By now, we have a deep
feeling for the beauty of the river. But the beauty always exists
Over the centuries, industry, agriculture and human development
severely damaged the environment of the Potomac River. By the
nineteen-seventies, people described the river¡¯s
condition as sickening. Then Congress passed the Clean Water
Act in nineteen-seventy-two.
The river has been improved greatly since then. Still, coal
mines in West Virginia drop harmful acids into the water. Waste
material from the Anacostia River floats on the Potomac. Sediment
material that falls to the bottom prevents traffic on some areas
of the river. Pesticides and fertilizers pollute the water.
Many environmental activists worry especially about the building
of new homes and businesses along the Potomac.
The Potomac River faces many environmental problems as a result
of population growth and its resulting pressures on land and
The river flows through land controlled by developers, private
owners and state and local governments. These groups often have
conflicting ideas about what is good and bad for the river.
Several organizations work to protect and improve the Potomac
River and the land near it. The Potomac Conservancy is one of
them. It carries out a land protection program, develops land
and water restoration projects, and provides education programs
for adults and young people.
We have enjoyed our trip on the Potomac River. The trip was
sometimes peaceful and sometimes exciting. We learned a lot
about the river and its history. We hope that Americans will
always take good care of their historic Potomac River.
This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson
and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another
Explorations program on the Voice of America.
This V-O-A Explorations Report is published
courtesy of VOAnews.com