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Seneca Stone Cutting Mill

Seneca Stone Cutting Mill Photos Summer 2005

Sandstone Workings - MHS Paper

Seneca Creek Quarry - History of its Operations

Seneca Stone Cutting Mill

National Register of Historic Places Inventory

Seneca Stone Cutting Mill Photos

 

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?

That refrain was sung by almost everyone on New Year’s Eve. And it holds true to the cusp of the old/new year that is Midnight.

The song should remind us of friends and family and remind us again of their importance to us. However, it should not be too much of a stretch to ask the song to remind us of our past, our history and things in that past that are important and worth remembering.

Seneca Stone Cutting Mill on the C&O Canal is one such thing.

The quarries and mill provided the stone for the Smithsonian Institution Building. It provided stone for many of the row houses in the DuPont Circle area of Washington.

As you walk up and down the C&O Canal, you can see the stone being used for aqueducts, locks, foundations, and buildings. This is a very early example of one of the industries that formed the bedrock of the new nation, and this one still exists!

As you walk upstream from Riley’s Lock and Seneca Aqueduct, you come to a basin that is now part swampy area with some dead trees sticking out of the water. Ducks, herons, and turtles are usually noticed as you walk by. If you look closely at the far bank, you see some stone along the edge, but it is not high above the water for the most part and has a dark red/maroon color that blends into the dirt of the bank.

Hidden just a few yards from the basin is the Seneca Stone Cutting Mill; or rather what is left of the mill. In one year (1871), 850,000 tons of Seneca Sandstone was quarried, cut, polished and shipped from the mill down the C&O Canal.

Men with steel drills and sledge hammers cut the stone from the hill. Other men moved the stone from the quarries along a narrow railroad track (man-powered) to the stone cutting mill. Water from the basin flowed through a water turbine channeling power to the saws that cut the rough-hewn stone into finer blocks.

All that activity is gone now -- blocked from view at least 6 months of the year by leaves and trees and vines -- and mostly hidden the rest of the year by its remoteness from the Canal towpath.

The future existence of this early American industrial structure is precarious at best; perhaps because it is hidden from view so much of the year. Currently, most of the red, sandstone walls have graffiti. The trees around the structure are losing limbs and as the limbs fall, they are taking parts of the walls with them. I have seen a serious deterioration in just the past year.

It was proposed to the Bicentennial Committee that the Montgomery County Project be the restoration of the quarry, the mill, the Seneca Schoolhouse, and the Quarry Master’s House. Their reasons resonate today, but with more urgency:
“We would be preserving a site of national importance, unique to Montgomery County, a site that, in the spirit of the bicentennial, was in use by 1789 – the neonatal days of our democracy – a site that has already been recognized by placement in the National Register of Historic Places and inclusion in the Historic American Buildings Survey. A step away from the all to common domestic restorations, it is a very early industrial site. It is most amenable to interpretation since the raw material is clearly there in situ, as is the finished product. The inherent natural beauty of the area makes it possible to show the visitor that in the earliest days of the industrial revolution in America, industrialization did not always rape the natural world but lived in harmony with it.”

Visitors to the C&O Canal have seen the amazing restoration of the Monocracy Aqueducts; we have watched it transformed from stone held together with an external skeleton of steel (ugly!!!!) to the graceful, flowing forms of arches and stones that the original masons and engineers envisioned.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pass on a major bit of history?

[Thanks to the Montgomery County Historical Society for the use of its library and the information that they have collected and maintained through the years.]

 

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