Transcripts

From Stone to Bright Red Structure: A Tour of the Seneca Quarry

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
But we start today's show with a transformation that will take us back in time, way back in time to something like, I don't know...

MR. GARRETT PECK

00:00:09
Two hundred and twenty million years ago or so.

SHEIR

00:00:11
In other words, the late Triassic age. The Triassic age?

PECK

00:00:15
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:00:16
Is that before or after the Jurassic age?

PECK

00:00:19
Before, yeah.

SHEIR

00:00:21
And according to the guy we're walking with here...

PECK

00:00:23
My name is Garrett Peck. I'm the author of "The Potomac River: A History and Guide" which just came out.

SHEIR

00:00:29
The late Triassic was a marvelous time in our region's history because it led to the formation of a rather distinctive local feature, one you can see in the Cabin John Bridge, for instance and some walkways and doorways of the U.S. Capital Building.

PECK

00:00:42
And, of course, the most famous is the Smithsonian Castle, right on the mall.

SHEIR

00:00:45
The ancient feature in question is a bright red rock known as Seneca Red Sandstone.

PECK

00:00:50
Another building made with Seneca Red Sandstone. It has been torn down in the 1970s, but it was there for about a century was the D.C. jail.

SHEIR

00:00:57
What became of that stone when the jail was torn down?

PECK

00:00:59
Some of the stone went into the Smithsonian's collection, should they ever need to repair the Smithsonian Castle.

SHEIR

00:01:05
So it's like a secret stockpile somewhere. Do you know where it is?

PECK

00:01:08
Not specifically, but I could probably find out if you gave me about two hours.

SHEIR

00:01:12
Listeners, we'll get back to you on this one.

PECK

00:01:13
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:01:14
And we will, I promise, on some future show so stay tuned. For now, though, it might be helpful to let you know where we are right now. We're right by the Potomac River in Maryland at Seneca Creek State Park. We're not too far from the Seneca Quarry. That's where all that super durable sandstone came from. To approach the quarry, you head down the C & O Canal towpath right around mile 23. So how far away are we from the quarry now?

PECK

00:01:38
We are almost in the quarry.

SHEIR

00:01:40
Oh.

PECK

00:01:40
Yeah, it's very close.

SHEIR

00:01:41
But here's the thing, you'd never know how very close it actually is. See, the quarrying operation closed around 1900. Then more than a century later, thanks to mother nature and father time, you can barely see the quarry for the trees.

PECK

00:01:56
The trees are very, very, very thick and the ground is covered in brush.

SHEIR

00:02:00
Well, back in the day, all of this growth, these trees, this brush, not here, right?

PECK

00:02:04
There wasn't probably, hardly, a single tree here at all. I mean, this was an industrial operation.

SHEIR

00:02:09
And what an operation it was. Garrett Peck says, the place was clattering with hammers and buzzing with drills as early as the 1770s. The when the C & O Canal's Seneca section opened in 1830, things really took off now that workers could float tons of stone to Washington each day. But as Peck points out, as the turn of the century approached, things began to change. For one thing...

PECK

00:02:33
...the C & O Canal declined.

SHEIR

00:02:34
...and eventually...

PECK

00:02:35
There was a major flood and then that shut the thing down.

SHEIR

00:02:37
That was in 1924. The quarry, of course, seized operations before that. But in any case, people also had begun moving away from red sandstone and gravitating toward other kinds of stone like granite.

PECK

00:02:50
Before an era of big ships and railroads and so on, you kind of dealt with the rocks you had locally. But now we can granite in our homes. Well, gosh, you can get it from North Carolina, you can get it from New Hampshire and you don't really care.

SHEIR

00:03:01
Hence, again, the Seneca Quarry's decline. But the overgrown cliffs aren't the only evidence of this downfall. If you veer off the C & O towpath and hike toward the quarry itself...

PECK

00:03:10
We'll walk right here, just a little ways.

SHEIR

00:03:12
...you'll approach a veritable shell of a building.

PECK

00:03:14
It's like you think you're somewhere in ancient Rome.

SHEIR

00:03:17
You know, I was just thinking that. It's bright red sandstone, about half the length of a football field and was once the Seneca Stone Cutting Mill. Though looking at the roofless ruin with its decrepit walls, its hollowed out windows and doorways, you'd be hard pressed to identify it as such. Seriously, I would never know this was a mill.

PECK

00:03:36
Yeah. I mean, it's not protected, it's not particularly well preserved and there's also a little bit of graffiti.

SHEIR

00:03:41
A little bit of graffiti, apparently Nick was here.

PECK

00:03:43
Yeah. Nick was here.

SHEIR

00:03:44
As, for the record, was someone named Kevin. Their spray painted scrolls join a host of others on the crumbling mill which Garrett Peck predicts, eventually, will crumble away all together.

PECK

00:03:55
Yeah, unless it's preserved, which means that someone has to be proactive about showing up the building.

SHEIR

00:04:00
We don't know if there's any movement afoot to do that?

PECK

00:04:03
The state of Maryland and, I believe, the C & O Canal, they've had a plan going back to the 1970s to do something with the quarry, to build some kind of visitor park or something. And they just never had the funds to do it. Which is really too bad. I think this would be a great park. And especially after seeing what Stafford County has done with Government Island.

SHEIR

00:04:20
Government Island is the Virginia Quarry that provided aquia sandstone for a bunch of famous projects including the White House and the U.S. Capital. Stafford County recently transformed the old quarry into an archeological site and park.

PECK

00:04:32
It's a great place to go watch birds and they've got signs all over it. You can walk among all the quarries. It's really, really cool. So A plus to Stafford County for doing that.

SHEIR

00:04:40
Whether Montgomery County will receive similarly high marks remains to be seen. In the meantime, Peck hopes more people will learn about the Seneca Quarry or at least learn it exists. We've past a few people here on this path, some joggers, some dog walkers, a guy on a bike. Do you think they have any idea about the history of, I mean, what they're walking by, what they're jogging by, what they're biking by?

PECK

00:05:00
I doubt anyone knows. There's not a sign to explain, hey, this is the place where the Smithsonian Castle was cut. But so much significance of our nation's history, of our capital city history, came about here through this quarry.

SHEIR

00:05:13
This quarry that Garrett Peck, for one, views as a regional treasure, a gem, a near forgotten diamond in the tried and a true rough. Garrett Peck is the author of "The Potomac River: A History and Guide," newly published by History Press. To see photographs of the Seneca Quarry and Mill, as well as some of the local structures built using that bright red sandstone, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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