Over the years, many bridges have crossed the curving path of the Monocacy River in Frederick County, MD. One of them, which a New York teenager put to flame on a hot July afternoon, helped to save the nation’s capitol.
Although the covered wooden bridge met its end in the 1864 Battle of the Monocacy, a number of historic bridges still grace the river’s many bends. Those who venture out on the Monocacy Water Trail will not only journey through some dramatic stone arches, but immerse themselves in a varied and historic landscape that includes the Monocacy National Battlefield.
The Monocacy Water Trail, a part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, guides paddlers along a 41-mile river route that begins near the Pennsylvania border. It ends about 15 miles south of Frederick, MD, where the river merges with the Potomac at the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Named a state scenic river in 1974, the Monocacy offers a relaxing ride that even in more populated areas is rich with greenery and wildlife.
“You get out on the river, and you are a million miles away,” said Andy Nichols, owner of Teamlink, a Frederick-based outdoors adventure company who leads group trips and canoe lessons on the Monocacy.
The upper Monocacy, north of the city of Frederick, flows through tranquil farmland and small towns bordered by the Catoctin Mountains that rise sharply to the west. Sycamores, maples and oaks shade much of the route and create a haven for wildlife.
“There’s enough forested buffer that we still have a wildlife corridor,” Nichols said. “My son went paddling upstream the other week and came back talking about nesting eagles and the spectacular cliffs.”
Subdivisions and city buildings join the backdrop as the river winds its way south through Frederick, then back to rural environs at the Monocacy National Battlefield and Monocacy Natural Resources Area. It flows under the largest aqueduct built for the C&O Canal before emptying into the Potomac River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
The diverse landscape of the Monocacy is replete with history.
As early as 10,000 years ago, Native Americans made both permanent and temporary homes along the river. Its contemporary name comes from the Shawnee word “monnockkesy,” which mean the “river with many bends.” Other tribes dubbed it the “garden creek,” because of its lush green banks.
German and English families began settling the fertile river valley in the 1700s, following the river valley south from Pennsylvania and creating industrious farms and villages along the way.
By the end of the century, there were at least 870 gristmills along the Monocacy and its tributaries. One of them, a 1739 building known as Michael’s Mill, still stands on a bluff beside the river, with formidable stone walls that greet paddlers who approach the quaint village of Buckeystown.
By the 1860s, the Best, Worthington and Thomas families were among the valley’s farmers. Their farms were positioned three miles south of Frederick at the Monocacy Junction—the site of an important crossroads. Two bridges marked the spot. The first was an iron structure that served the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The second was a covered wooden bridge that carried the Georgetown Pike across the river and on to the nation’s capital.
In July of 1864, Confederate Lt. Gen.Jubal Early began moving 15,000 troops out of the West Virginia mountains and through western Maryland. The bulk of the Union army was far to the south. Early’s goal was to take Washington while it was virtually without defense.
Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, one of the few Union commanders still north of the Potomac, tried to anticipate Early’s moves. Wallace positioned his small force at Monocacy Junction and waited. He later wrote: “The importance of the position on which I ultimately gave battle cannot be overestimated. There, within the space of two miles, converge the pikes to Washington and Baltimore, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; there also is the iron bridge over the Monocacy, upon which depends railroad communication to Harper’s Ferry.”
The scope and duration of the conflict were relatively small, but the consequences were enormous.
The one-day battle pitted 5,800 Union soldiers against 15,000 Confederates. Soldiers trampled the farms on both sides of the river. The Worthington family sent slaves and horses into hiding on Sugarloaf Mountain. Six-year-old Glenn Worthington watched the battle from a window in the cellar, where the family took shelter behind boarded doors.
The Union soldiers—mostly new recruits—repelled Confederate advances twice but suffered heavy losses. In the final hours of battle, troops defending the covered bridge stuffed bundles of wheat under its eaves. Then, 17-year-old Alfred Savo shimmied up a post and lit the fire.
Ultimately, the Union soldiers were forced to retreat. But the Confederates had lost a full day in their march toward Washington—and it was enough to thwart the entire plan.
Early and his exhausted troops reached Washington’s perimeter just in time to see a great number of blue-coated soldiers move into one of the city’s defensive forts.
As Early later wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee, “I determined at first to make an assault, but before it could be made it became apparent that the enemy had been strongly re-enforced…I determined to retire across the Potomac to [Virginia] before it became too late.”
The largest aqueduct on the C&O Canal, which crosses the Monocacy River just north of its confluence with the Potomac, was also a target of Confederate attention.
The aqueduct was completed in 1833, after four years of labor by approximately 300 men. Its seven arches span 516 feet across the Monocacy, using large quartzite blocks cut from Sugarloaf Mountain. One hundred Irish immigrant stonecutters died of cholera while working on the aqueduct and are buried in a nearby churchyard.
During the Civil War, the canal was used to transport troops and materials along the Maryland and Virginia border. General Lee ordered the Monocacy aqueduct to be destroyed. But as soldiers made futile attempts to drill into the stone, their commanding officer found that “the extraordinary solidity and massiveness of the masonry” would make the job take days instead of hours and leave his troops “in an exposed and dangerous position.” They withdrew.
More than 100 years later, the devastation of Hurricane Agnes also failed to topple the aqueduct’s massive granite walls. But it came close. Storm floods stressed the weakening structure and led to the installation of large steel braces. In 1998, the National Historic Trust named the aqueduct an endangered historic site and a number of partners rallied to its restoration. Congress appropriated $6.2 million for the project.
Today, the aqueduct is a showpiece at the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Paddlers on the Monocacy Water Trail will pass directly under it. There is also plenty of room to pull ashore for a picnic and enjoy a walk across the dry aqueduct channel, which ferried canal boats over the Monocacy for nearly a century.
The LeGore Bridge on the upper Monocacy was built in the late 1800s. While it escaped the trials of the Civil War, the bridge has still earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. The stone arch bridge was engineered and built by James LeGore, using limestone and workmen from the nearby LeGore quarry. Its five spans create a 250-foot passage 50 feet above the Monocacy River that is still in use today.
Like many rivers in the Bay watershed, the Monocacy has felt the effects of both agriculture and burgeoning development. Sediment and the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus wash into the river from both farm fields and impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads and roofs.
In May, the University of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation received a $1 million grant to reduce nutrients that enter the river from farmland in the Monocacy watershed. The two-year project is funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust, EPA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Project partners will use “precision feeding” on 20 dairy farms to reduce the level of nutrients in cattle feed and, by turn, in their manure. The project will also double the current acreage of cover crops, which reduce nitrogen in the soil, and transfer excess manure to areas that can use it effectively.
Community conservation efforts, under way since the 1970s, have created new streamside forest buffers and an ongoing monitoring program coordinated by Hood College.
Community Commons, a partner in both conservation and education programs, sponsors the Monocacy Water Trail to highlight the river as a recreational and environmental resource.
“We took on the water trail project to raise awareness about water quality in the Monocacy and its connection to the Bay watershed, and to awaken people to the spirituality of a waterway that has been part of our community for generations,” said Margaret Kline, president of the board of directors. One of the best times to visit the Monocacy Water Trail is now: spring and early summer. Late fall and winter are another good choice.
Paddlers should be aware that scenic float is not without a few surprises—there’s one patch of Class I rapids and a challenging passage at a historic rubble dam next to Michael’s Mill.
“The Greenfield rapids are very low level, but the Michael’s Mill dam is a man-made rapid that’s fairly challenging,” Nichols said. “I take my canoe classes there for practice, and people do turn over in there. There are a couple of nice big waves by some rocks, and you have to be on top of things.”
Paddlers can opt to make portage at Michael’s Mill, and also at Bigg’s Ford when the water is low.
Monacacy Water Trail Guide
The Monocacy Water Trail guide, which outlines recommended water levels, access points, watershed information, and points of interest along the trail, is available from Community Commons by calling 301-662-3000 or visiting their web site at ww.communitycommons.org.