In Potomac, Frederick Gutheim paints an image of the Lower Potomac during Colonial times as both a highway and Main Street. Seafaring vessels arrive from Great Britain bringing household commodities; they depart with grain and tobacco. Small boats take goods and passengers across the river and up tributaries, like delivery trucks and taxi cabs. All life is oriented toward the water. This was the Potomac of Virginia’s founding families—names shaped and founded America. These were the Washington, Carters, Lees and others.
In the 19th century, when railroad and flat-water canal networks were developed across the eastern seaboard, marine transportation became even stronger on Virginia’s Lower Potomac. Steamboat lines thrived as freight and passenger transport, a system that survived well into the 20th century and now remembered as the region’s most distinctive artifact of Potomac heritage.
Just as the waters of the Lower Potomac and Chesapeake Bay continually mix in a fusion of fresh and salt water, so has the tradition of the water-based fishing economy. Commercial fishing, particularly the menhaden fishery, were so important to the Northern Neck way of life that one small town at the mouth of the river was once considered the richest town in America.Travelers moving from the mouth of the Potomac River to the Forks of the Ohio in Pittsburgh, can think of transportation systems as time machines, as sailing ships, then steamboats lead to the C&O Canal, which leads to the railroad that ultimately tied the Ohio River with the Chesapeake Bay the world at large.