A Creek Runs Through It

Rock Creek meanders through Montgomery County for more than 20 miles and is marked by nature’s beauty.

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The many Rock Creek Trail users I encounter include cyclists, walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and a man being pushed in a wheelchair. When I stop to observe a flock of frenzied robins dining on honeysuckle berries, a young woman interrupts her run to ask if I’m bird-watching. I’m used to the camaraderie of Boundary Bridge and the constant meet and greet of neighbors, but I am pleasantly surprised to discover that Rock Creek friendliness also infuses visitors to the north.

The young woman, Daphne Fuentevilla, grew up next to Rock Creek in Kensington. She and her husband now live in a home that overlooks the creek where she swam as a child (“maybe not such a good idea”), and “played all day, having mud fights with my friends and coming home with mud in our ears.” She remembers how the days spent splashing in Rock Creek inspired her imagination. Daphne now works as an engineer and unwinds along Rock Creek in the same way Trottenberg and Zuckerman do—running and observing nature through the seasons. As a child, Daphne saw fish, snakes, turtles, foxes and raccoons in and around Rock Creek, and she still finds box turtles crossing the bike/running trail and often spots deer, pileated woodpeckers, large hawks and tiny hummingbirds, all next to Beach Drive and within a stone’s throw of Rockville Pike.

As I pedal north, a motif emerges. Next to the mature woodlands adjoining Rock Creek, with glimpses through the trees of neighborhoods hugging the ridges, there is a jeweled string of parks and playgrounds. They are filled on this Sunday afternoon. Children whiz down the brightly colored slides, and men play soccer on nearly every field, calling out to their teammates in Spanish. In Ken-Gar Palisades Park, the cattails in a Rock Creek wetland nearly swallow the goal line.

Ken-Gar sits next to an impressive 1890s stone railroad bridge that still bears commercial train travel (the bike path and Beach Drive pass under its arch) and near the former site of Newport Mill, a flourmill dating to the 18th century. Josiah Henson, who was a principal inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” character, experienced a religious awakening at age 18 while listening to a local preacher at the mill, according to Susan Soderberg, a Montgomery County historian who serves as education and outreach planner for the historic preservation section of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Henson, who grew up a slave on the Riley Plantation (a log structure often referred to as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” still stands off Old Georgetown Road on the former plantation site) later became a preacher himself. He and his family eventually fled Kentucky and went to Canada, where he founded a settlement and school for other escaped slaves and became a leading figure in the Underground Railroad. A plaque next to the trail highlights his story.

Soderberg says it is likely that escaping slaves or “freedom seekers” used Rock Creek as a route on the Underground Railroad. “Traditionally, freedom seekers used stream valleys to find their way north because roads were dangerous,” she says. For Confederate General Jubal Early, “Rock Creek was just another stream to be forded,” according to Charles T. Jacobs, an esteemed Civil War historian and author of the Civil War Guide to Montgomery County, Maryland, who died shortly after being interviewed for this article. Early’s forces “sought to threaten the defenses surrounding Washington, D.C., in July 1864 in order to draw Union troops from the battlegrounds in Virginia,” Jacobs said. With the July heat contributing to “a high rate of straggling” after the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Early divided his forces near Rockville, sending the bulk of his cavalry and mounted infantry down Rockville Pike toward Fort Reno in Tennallytown (now Tenleytown) and leading the rest of his troops down Veirs Mill Road toward Silver Spring and Fort Stevens, “crossing Rock Creek near Samuel Veirs’ grist and saw mill,” according to Jacobs. The mill, built in 1838, was located about 2 miles southeast of Rockville.

As I wait with my bike at a traffic light on Veirs Mill Road, the largest and busiest thoroughfare traversed by the Rock Creek Trail (a trail bridge is planned), I try to imagine Rock Creek’s agrarian past and the large farm properties that depended on slave labor to grow tobacco. Later, after the soil became depleted, the farms expanded their cultivation of cereals and grains, which were brought to the mills for grinding. Today, we remember the mills primarily through the names of roads, such as Veirs Mill.

Once I’m past Veirs Mill Road, the woods expand and the creek ravines steepen. Christmas ferns spring from the rocky ledges above Rock Creek. As I get closer to Lake Needwood, I reflect on what I have gleaned about the creek’s ecology. I have peered into the water at several spots and seen no fish. But I know from the hours I’ve spent at Boundary Bridge that fish can be elusive. The banks of Rock Creek itself are largely wooded, but the tributaries feeding it seem battered and bruised, buried under roads and forced through pipes. In a few spots, I smell what seem to be emanations from the sanitary sewer system.

As I learn from Carole Bergmann, Neal Fitzpatrick, Steve Dryden and other ecologists, Storm water runoff is a huge problem for the creek. Development has increased the number of impervious surfaces (roads, sidewalks, parking lots, rooftops) in the Rock Creek watershed. When it rains, water races into the storm drains and then into the tributaries and main stem of the creek. Patchwork engineering of water flow over the years has been unable to effectively control the sudden rush of water into Rock Creek during and after storms. The swiftly flowing water carries toxic runoff and a heavy sediment load, not just from the creek’s surroundings, but from the banks and bottom of the creek itself. And when stormwater brings down creek-side trees, which I often see happen near Boundary Bridge, the sediment overload increases. Rapid runoff also can challenge the sanitary sewer system, leading to leaks, according to Dryden.

As I pedal northward, the water seems clearer and the banks less eroded. For the most part (there are exceptions), the creek water is less compromised as you get closer to the source. Water quality charts verify what can often be seen with the naked eye: pollution is more of a problem in the densely settled areas downstream, close to the District line. In the upper parts of the Rock Creek watershed there are stretches of stream where the water quality is considered good to excellent, while in lower Rock Creek the water quality is fair to poor. At the Southlawn Lane crossing north of Rockville, I peer into the clear water of a former baptismal pool. As late as the 1950s, full immersion baptisms were performed here by the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. This part of Rock Creek still exudes the serenity of a sacred site.

My ride culminates in a delightful lunch next to a beaver dam in a mountain laurel patch just south of Lake Needwood in Derwood. As Rock Creek trills over the dam, a red-shouldered hawk circles above. Here I meet a woman named Rita Mhley (pronounced Millay), a fellow writer who has lived next to the creek for 28 years and speaks passionately of its beauty and importance as a refuge—describing the jack-in-the-pulpits that bloom each spring with their purplish-brown and green leafy hoods, the people she meets who are gathering mushrooms, and how her teenage son used to ride all the way to Mount Vernon on the contiguous bike paths. She says things have changed around the creek—the Derwood-area farm where she and her family used to purchase produce is now dotted with large houses—but that her familiar stretch of the creek has largely remained the same. “It still has that rustic flavor,” says Mhley.

Lake Needwood and Lake Frank I am holding a quartzite spear point in my hand that was unearthed along Rock Creek. Montgomery County Department of Parks archeologists Jim Sorensen and Heather Bouslog tell me that this piece of tan stone carved by a nomadic American Indian is 1,000 to 2,000 years old and was found at the Agricultural History Farm Park just north of where we are convened. Seated at a lunchroom table at the historic Needwood Mansion, Sorensen and Bouslog and two volunteer archeologists, Jim Owens and Jean Goertner, are filling me in on Rock Creek’s expansive history over bowls of microwaved soup. Every few minutes, one of them pops up to grab and photocopy a history file or collect and share an artifact. Energy crackles at this impromptu archeology round table. The 19th century brick Needwood Mansion, which overlooks the lake of the same name, was acquired by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and currently houses parks department offices and an informal museum.

Sorensen and his colleagues describe the early hunter-gatherers of the Archaic period (defined as 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.) who traveled Rock Creek in small bands, gleaning huckleberries and blackberries in the summer, and persimmons, acorns and chestnuts in the fall. The creek was filled with fish, and the woods with game. Even later, during the Woodland period (defined as 1,000 B.C. to 1,600 A.D.) when regional Indians were growing crops in the larger flood plains of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, they continued to travel Rock Creek and create seasonal camps. Sorensen says spear points, pottery fragments, animal bones and other artifacts found in a rock shelter near Meadowside Nature Center off Muncaster Mill Road—along Rock Creek’s North Branch, its largest tributary—span a 5,000 year period, from about 3500 B.C. to A.D. 1440.

Thanks to a fish ladder put into operation a year ago at Peirce Mill downstream in D.C., an adromous fish such as shad and herring—which live in saltwater but swim up fresh water rivers and streams to spawn and were sought by generations of Indians and European settlers— soon may return to portions of Rock Creek in Maryland.

The fish, however, won’t reach the ancient spawning grounds that lie beyond the Needwood Dam, a seemingly impenetrable barrier that gave Rock Creek Regional Park manager Jim Humerick quite a scare on a night in June 2006, when its impermeability suddenly was called into question. After an unexpected deluge brought 10 inches of rain to some parts of the Washington area, causing a 25-foot rise in Lake Needwood, the dam began to leak and 2,300 people downstream had to be evacuated in the middle of the night. Since then, the dam has been strengthened. Park managers and the Maryland Department of the Environment keep a close eye on both the Needwood and Lake Frank dams during flood watches and warnings.

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