Thinking Citizen Blog — Special Rivers II: the Potomac

Thinking Citizen Blog — Wednesday is Climate Change, the Environment, and Sustainability Day

Today’s Topic — Special Rivers II: the Potomac — “river of the swans,” bottle-nosed dolphins, lots of history

To me, as a child, the Potomac was a big, brown, filthy, scary river. The Key Bridge over which we drove was particularly terrifying. So far to fall. And the Great Fall made me feel small, insignificant, powerless. Today, I decided to learn more about my hometown river and share it. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

THE COURSE OF THE RIVER: 480 miles long, 10–25 million years old, John Denver

1. The headwaters are in West Virginia. Two branches, flowing northeast, converge south of Cumberland, MD to form the Potomac which flows southeast past Washington DC and into Chesapeake Bay.

2. The river forms the border between West Virginia and Maryland from its source to Harper’s Ferry. And then between Virginia and Maryland, and Virginia and Washington DC.

3. Navigable up. to Washington DC, it has two notable tributaries: the Shenandoah (at Harper’s Ferry) and the Anacostia (at DC).

NB: The Shenandoah is famous for both the limestone Luray Caverns and the songs: “Oh Shenandoah” (folk song) and “Take me Home Country Roads” (John Denver).


1. Supplies 80% of the drinking water to the DC metropolitan area with a population of roughly 6 MM.

2. John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry with the goal of triggering a slave revolt was a milestone in the lead-up to the Civil War. (Photo above is of Harper’s Ferry.)

3. The Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North twice by crossing the river (1862–3). General Jubal Early did it again in 1864.

NB: John Quincey Adams was famous for swimming in the Potomac every summer. George Washington’s estate, Mt. Vernon, has a great Potomac vista. Lyndon Johnson quote: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read “The President Can’t Swim.”


1. Potomac means “river of the swans” in Algonquian. Above are “tundra swans” from which the river gets its name.

2. Global warming has increased the number of sightings of Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins in recent years.

3. Pollution: renowned for its stench in the 19th century, it was threatened with eutrophication in the 20th. LBJ called it “a national disgrace.” And in 2007 an environmental group rated the river a D+. Of particular concern was the high number of “intersex” fish. A cleanup campaign followed, and the grade is now a B.

Potomac River


Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to climate change or the environment. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to climate change that the rest of us may have missed. Your favorite chart or table perhaps…

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart.

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, and art.