Garrett Peck falls down Georgetown’s Exorcist stairs every chance he gets, yet he can’t exorcise his passion for history. A literary journalist and history dork, he is the author of Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t and leads the Temperance Tour of prohibition-related sites in Washington. The Potomac River: A History and Guide is his third and newest book. His website, www.garrettpeck.com, lists upcoming events such as The Potomac River publication party at the Congressional Cemetery on April 26th. A native Californian and a Virginia Military Institute graduate, he lives in lovely Arlington, Virginia. We hope you enjoy this interview with Garrett as much as we did!
- Why and how did you become interested in the conservation/preservation aspects of the Potomac?
When I was in graduate school, I interned at the Conservation Fund and assisted Frances Kennedy with the second edition of The Civil War Battlefield Guide. That was my first book research project, and I just loved it. Shortly after that, I thought to write something similar but focused on the Potomac River. I did quite a bit of research and then set it aside for more than a decade (yes, you read that right). Then, in May 2011, I was touring Mount Vernon with a group of fellow photographer-hobbyists and was reminded that I needed to finish this book. I got right to it, wrapping up the research in about seven months.
- What sets the Potomac River apart from other U.S. rivers?
The Potomac is unique in that it is considered the “nation’s river.” Captain John Smith explored the river in 1608—just a year after Jamestown was settled—and the first Catholic settlers came to Maryland in 1634. Our young republic grew up along these banks, as did George Washington, who likewise picked the location for the nation’s capital along the river (Washington, D.C.).
The Potomac is also unique in that the river is largely natural. So many major American rivers have been “harnessed” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for navigation or flood control. We’ve built levees and locks in our effort to control nature. We tried that on the Potomac on a much smaller scale two hundred years ago, and it failed. The Potomac has been left to be itself, and that’s a wonderful thing. We have this great natural asset that gives us fun recreational opportunities, a tremendous amount of geologic and human history and our drinking water.
- What stories came to life when you were researching for this book? And was there any “lost” or “hidden” history that you discovered about the Potomac?
The biggest piece of “lost” history I discovered in my research was the Seneca quarry, located in western Montgomery County, Maryland. It was abandoned around 1900 and simply forgotten, but this quarry had a major impact on Washington. It’s where the bright red sandstone came from that built the Smithsonian Castle and many structures in the Washington, D.C. area. It is only a few hundred feet from the Seneca Aqueduct on the C&O Canal, but people walk or ride past it without realizing there is something so historically significant a stone’s throw away. And there are no signs or a visitors’ park to explain that the quarry is there. It sits right at the mouth of Seneca Creek in Seneca Creek State Park. Personally, I’d love to see a visitor park created someday centered on the quarry. You can read more about the Seneca quarry on Wikipedia.
- What kinds of adventures did you have when finding and visiting the unmarked site of the Seneca quarry?
I took the host of WAMU 88.5 FM’s Metro Connection to the site recently, and we recorded our visit—it’s available as a six-minute podcast with an amazing photo essay by my friend Tom Espinoza. Here’s the link to From Stone to Bright Red Structure: A Tour of the Seneca Quarry.
Above the quarry is the quarry master’s house. I contacted the man who restored the house, Bob Albiol, and he graciously opened his doors and showed us around the property. The house actually belongs to the State of Maryland; he doesn’t own it, though he started restoring it in 1984 at his own expense (and took six years, using original materials). He put his own sweat and coin into restoring something that will hopefully be a legacy to remember this forgotten quarry.
- How does researching a natural history/guidebook differ from researching books like Prohibition in D.C.?
Prohibition in Washington, D.C. was a book that I wrote largely through archival research. It involved digging through firsthand accounts and newspaper clippings to see Prohibition through the eyes of the people who lived through it. The Potomac River was quite a different research experience (and probably healthier, I might add). Field research made up the bulk of my research; that is, I went hiking, kayaking and sightseeing and took lots of notes and pictures. I learned about the historic sites by visiting them—but of course, you still have to do a lot of book and online research just to find a historically relevant site.
- In what ways did the Potomac River play a significant role in Civil War history?
The Potomac had a huge role in the Civil War. As so much of the war was fought in Virginia, the river served as the effective border between North and South. John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, a crucial event that helped set off the war, occurred right along the Potomac. The river was a crucial supply line to the west for the Union—both the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad parallel the Potomac, both of which were tempting targets to Confederate raiders. The Confederates crossed the river on three major invasions of the North: Antietam, Gettysburg and Early’s Raid on Washington, D.C. The river was vital to the Union, which named its principal army after it: the Army of the Potomac. And the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam, occurred along the river’s banks. It was this battle that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual freeing of the slaves.
- How does the Potomac River contribute to the lives of people in Washington, D.C., especially in ways they may not know?
We have this stunning river on our doorstep, rich in history and natural beauty, and yet people are so busy with their careers and lives that they only see it as a barrier along their commutes to work. Far too few people enjoy the historical and recreational possibilities that the Potomac River offers. I hope to get Washingtonians excited about this magnificent river. And hey, did I mention that we get almost all of our tap water from the Potomac.
- Which of the six major physiographic regions along the course of the Potomac River is your favorite and why?
That’s like asking what my favorite kind of ice cream is. But if I had to pick one (Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, ahem), I’d pick the Great Valley Province. It’s a narrow valley—not more than ten miles wide—incredibly fertile and breathtakingly beautiful. You can see the mountains from every direction. I went to college (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia, so I have a real fondness for this beautiful geography. In many ways, you’d think you are in Bavaria, minus the onion-domed churches…and breweries.
- What’s on your bookshelf right now and/or a book you would recommend to readers?
I just finished David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, the Pulitzer Prize–winning history about how George Washington turned the Revolutionary War around in December 1776. It’s a myth-shattering book and a great read (no, the Hessians were neither drunk nor hungover at Trenton). It’s rare that I get to read fiction; so much of my time goes toward research, which means nonfiction, but I’m taking a break and reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick again, something I haven’t read since high school. And not a day passes that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces doesn’t taunt me from my bookshelf, demanding to be read yet again. It’s a total snarkfest—and I love it! When I turned forty a few years ago, I visited New Orleans and hit the places where Ignatius Reilly, the book’s (anti) hero, had his antics. Literary tourism!