From its headwaters in the Monongahela National Forest and the Shenandoah National Valley, the Potomac River flows for over 400 miles between the states of Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia, passing through the District of Columbia and eventually emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. The river marks a boundary for the surrounding states and has long been a major part of the lives of their residents.
Amid the nationwide efforts to preserve natural landmarks in the 1960s, congressional delegations from the various states around the Potomac River turned their attention to achieving some level of federal aid and protection for the waterway. Given that most of the river’s main course is within the boundary of the state of Maryland, the first leaders in this fight were congressmen and senators from the Old Line State.
A major step to preserving the Maryland shore of the Potomac was the creation of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park in 1972. However, the West Virginia and Virginia shores of the river remained outside of federal protection, much to the approval of residents who feared that federal protection would encroach on their property rights.
In 1974, Maryland Representative Gilbert Gude introduced H.R. 12785 to establish the Potomac National River. In a letter to Senator Byrd, Congressman Gude stated that “we must anticipate the kinds of commercial and industrial development which could well mar the beauty of the river for generations to come.”
By the end of 1974, Senator Byrd’s bill had received endorsement from the U.S. Department of the Interior on his bill to establish a Potomac Heritage Trail. In the summer of 1975, Senator Byrd testified before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, stating that “sixteen million people reside within 100 miles of this proposed route, and the millions of tourists who visit the Nation’s capital each year would have easy access to this trail.” After several more years of studies and subsequent bills, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail was formally established by Congress in 1983.
In part 2 of this blog series, we will explore the efforts of Maryland’s congressional leaders, including Congressman Gude’s 1974 bill, to preserve the Potomac River.