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

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The Seneca Stone Cutting Mill closed when the Seneca Quarry shut down in 1900. Now the mill is in ruins.
Tomas Espinoza
The Seneca Stone Cutting Mill closed when the Seneca Quarry shut down in 1900. Now the mill is in ruins.

Garrett Peck, self-professed "history dork" and author of the newly published book, The Potomac River: A History and Guide, isn't ashamed to admit it: He's a huge fan of the late Triassic age.

Why? Because 200 million years ago our region was given a rather distinctive local feature - one you can see in the Cabin John Bridge, in some walkways and doorways of the U.S. Capitol Building, and most notably of all, in the stately Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall.

The ancient feature in question is a bright red rock known as Seneca red sandstone. It came from the Seneca Quarry in Maryland's Seneca Creek State Park, just off Mile 23 of the C & O Canal Towpath.

After the quarry operation closed in 1900, Mother Nature and Father Time took their toll, and now the quarry's covered in impenetrable trees and brush. But Peck says as early as the 1770s, the quarry was clattering with hammers and buzzing with drills. Then, when the 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. The C&O declined and eventually closed, and people's tastes were changing, as they gravitated toward other kinds of stone, such as granite.

"Before an era of big ships and railroads, you dealt with the rocks you had locally," Peck says. "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!"

The future of Seneca Quarry

When the Seneca Quarry was in full swing, all stone was cut in the Seneca Stone Cutting Mill. Now, the roofless red sandstone building looks more like a Roman ruin, with decrepit walls, hollowed-out windows and doorways, and scrawls of graffiti.

Peck predicts the structure eventually will crumble away altogether "unless it's preserved, which means someone has to be proactive about shoring up the building."

He says the state of Maryland, and the C&O Canal "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've 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..."

Government Island is the Virginia quarry that provided Acquia sandstone for a bunch of famous projects, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. Stafford County recently transformed the old quarry in to an archaeological site and park. "It's a great place to go watch birds," Peck says, "and they've got signs all over it; you can walk among the quarries. It's really, really cool. So 'A+' to Stafford County for doing that!"

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. Because right now, he says, "I doubt anyone knows. There's no 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."

This quarry, that Peck, for one, views as a regional treasure. A gem, a near-forgotten diamond in the rough.

[Music: "Like A Rolling Stone" by Vitamin String Quartet from The String Quartet Tribute to Bob Dylan]

Photos: Seneca Quarry


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