On the National Road in Western Maryland

The National Road is not as renowned as Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway, or even the Lincoln Highway of early 20th century fame. Although once immensely important, it is now really less of a road than a route, and less of a route than a historical memory of a route.

You can think of the National Road as the first interstate highway, minus all the lanes and the sprawling rest areas. (But with tolls!) Envisioned by George Washington and championed by Thomas Jefferson, it was the first major road financed and built by the federal government.

Travelers on the National Road, 1928

Initially called the Cumberland Road, it was constructed in the early 1800s to link the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, with the Ohio River at Wheeling, in what would later become West Virginia. Privately built turnpikes and toll roads extended the route east to Baltimore, at the time the nation’s third largest city and a major port. Thus, the National Road became the first, and for a long time the only, highway connecting the eastern seaboard with the western frontier across the Appalachian Mountains.

The National Road was later improved, surfaced with macadam, and extended farther west across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It was most heavily traveled through the mid-1800s, until railroads largely superseded it. It enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1900s with the rise of automobile travel.

On the Road

On my way home from a recent trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, I decided to follow the route of the National Road from where it enters western Maryland near Keysers Ridge to Hancock, about 70 miles away. I had driven the route east of Hancock many times, so at that point I’d return to the interstate highway.

So with my “Historic National Road” brochure (from a Maryland visitor center) on the seat beside me, my AAA map of Maryland at the ready, and Google Maps as a backup, I exited I-68 at Keysers Ridge and hit the road.

It’s not the easiest route to follow. The National Road is designated as US 40 where it enters Maryland, but then it changes to Alt 40 at Keysers Ridge. It stays that way to Cumberland, beyond which the route changes designations several times. In various places it is US 40, Alt 40, Scenic 40, Route 144, and even I-68. Occasionally, it’s even called the National Road.

First Stop: Grantsville

The Casselman River Bridge in Grantsville.

I originally had planned to stay overnight in Grantsville on my way home from Morgantown and explore the state parks and forests of far western Maryland. But after two days in West Virginia, I felt I’d seen enough tree-covered mountains and decided to head home early. But I did want to check out the Casselman Inn in Grantsville where I had planned to stay.

I pulled into Grantsville after a relaxing, traffic-free drive along the National Road from Keysers Ridge and stopped at the inn.

The hotel now called the Casselman Inn dates back to 1842. It was one of many inns along the busy road that served travelers arriving by stagecoach, covered wagon, horse, and foot. It is one of only a few such inns along the National Road that still survive. You can stay in a room in the historic inn, or in the two-story motel unit that has been added behind it. The inn has a restaurant and bakery, so I decided to have breakfast there before moving on.

The white cast iron mile marker in front of the inn is one of the original markers installed in 1835 by the state of Maryland when it assumed control of the road. One side shows the number of miles to the western end of the National Road (“106 to Wheeling”) and to the next town in that direction (“to Petersburgh 12,” now Addison, Pennsylvania). The other side shows the mileage to Cumberland, the eastern end of the road, and Frostburg, the next town in that direction.

Just down the road in a small park is one of the historical highlights of the route, the Casselman River Bridge. Begun in 1813, it was at the time the largest single-span stone arch bridge in the country. It was in continual use as a highway bridge until 1933, when a new bridge opened nearby. If you walk over the bridge, you’ll see the year 1911 carved in stone, marking the year the bridge underwent a major restoration and strengthening for motorized traffic.

The bridge’s arch was made high and wide enough to accommodate canal boats. The C&O Canal was originally planned to extend along the general route of the National Road to the Ohio River, but construction ended in Cumberland.

On the far side of the bridge is Spruce Forest Artisan Village, a cluster of historic structures where artisans work in various media and sell their artworks, and a café and a restaurant.

Frostburg and La Vale

The Gunter Hotel in Frostburg opened in 1897. Now housing both hotel rooms and apartments, it has been restored to its historic elegance.

Leaving Grantsville, I headed toward the city of Frostburg. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail trail passes right by here before veering north into Pennsylvania. Frostburg is also the terminus of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which offers train rides between Cumberland and Frostburg. Sue and I stayed with friends in Frostburg a few years ago at the historic Gunter Hotel, using it as a base of operations for exploring the GAP trail.

Across the street from the hotel is the Princess Restaurant, a venerable diner where President Harry Truman and his wife Bess stopped to eat during a driving trip from their Missouri home back to Washington, D.C., in 1953.

The La Vale Toll House.

Although the federal government financed and built the National Road, political controversy soon arose over who should pay to maintain it. The issue was resolved by transferring ownership of the road to the individual states it ran through. Once Maryland assumed control of its section, the state began building toll houses along it.

The first toll house on the National Road was built in the town of La Vale, just west of Cumberland, the road’s original eastern terminus. Constructed in 1834–35, the La Vale Toll House still stands by the roadside. The toll collector lived right inside the two-story, seven-sided building. Users of the road were charged a standard set of fares, depending on relatively how much wear and tear different vehicles or animals were likely to cause to the road. Signs on the outside of the toll house detail the rates.

Lost in Cumberland

I drove on to Cumberland, the largest city in western Maryland, the terminus of the C&O Canal, which extends to Washington, D.C., and the starting point for the GAP rail trail, which extends to Pittsburgh. But I didn’t stop to visit Cumberland. I was here to follow the National Road, and it skirts past downtown and twists and turns through the north side of the city.

Here, the going started to get tricky. I missed a turn trying to follow Alt 40 along Baltimore Avenue, but quickly realized my mistake and got back on track. I headed under I-68 and kept going on what I thought was the right road. It took me through a traffic circle and then another, and I started to feel like I’d lost the route again. Down the road a bit, I pulled into a parking lot to check my maps.

Neither my brochure map nor my AAA map provided enough detail, so I called up Google Maps. Alt 40 had somehow turned into Route 639. I knew that wasn’t the right way. I figured the National Road probably merged onto I-68 (also designated US 40) a couple of miles back. So I retraced my route and got on the interstate. My brochure map seemed to show that the National Road picked up again as Route 144, which soon began to parallel the interstate, but I missed the exit to it. So I stayed on I-68 until Flintstone and finally got on Route 144 there.

Over the Hills

The National Road in western Maryland traverses a series of parallel ridges and valleys trending roughly north-south, like waves washing toward the flat coastal plain. For much of the drive, you don’t really notice the true nature of this geography. The road just goes up and down, cutting through many of the lower ridges by following the courses of rivers and streams.

But as you approach Hancock, the National Road goes up and over a couple of high ridges. At the top of the first ridge, I pulled over into a parking area with a sweeping view. A wayside exhibit here informed me that this was Town Hill Overlook, dubbed the “Beauty Spot of Maryland” by auto tourists in the 1920s.

The view from Town Hill Overlook, and the distant rising wave of Sidling Hill.

It is quite a view, said to encompass three states, presumably Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. To the east you can clearly see the long ridge of equally high Sidling Hill, as well as the deep notch in it that I-68 passes through. When the interstate was built through here, the steep grade of the National Road over Sidling Hill made engineers decide to blast through the mountain rather than follow the old road. The resulting roadcut is now something of a tourist attraction. There is a Maryland visitor center on I-68 on the eastern side of Sidling Hill where you can view the exposed rock layers.

The Town Hill Bed and Breakfast.

Hotels were built on many of the mountain summits along the National Road. Across the road from Town Hill Overlook stands one of the earliest. The Town Hill Hotel began as a fruit stand in 1916, became a hotel and restaurant by 1920, and is now a bed and breakfast. The hotel offers shuttle service for bicyclists traveling along the C&O Canal from Little Orleans (Mile 140.9), about 8 very hilly miles away.

Hancock and the End of the Road

After descending Town Hill, I followed a Scenic 40 sign and was shunted back onto I-68 for a short distance. Later reviewing my route on Google Maps, it seemed I could have stayed on McFarland Road and skipped the interstate. Then I made the long and steep traverse up, over, and down Sidling Hill. It made me appreciate why highway planners routed the interstate through and not over the mountain.

The toll house near Hancock. One would have to be extra careful when stepping out of the front door.

My National Road brochure alerted me to a historic site I hadn’t known about, another toll house just outside of Hancock. Built around 1922, this one looks quite different from the toll house in La Vale. While this too served as both tollgate and toll keeper’s residence, it looks like a cozy little brick house, although one set rather close to the road. The toll rate signs on its walls show the same rates as La Vale.

I was now nearing the end of my drive on the National Road. I stopped in Hancock for a short bicycle ride along the C&O Canal towpath and then headed for my last stop.

The Blue Goose Market is at the far eastern end of Hancock, just before the National Road (here Route 144) merges onto I-70. A combination gift shop, gourmet market, and bakery, it has become a traditional stop for me and Sue when we visit Hancock to bike along the C&O Canal or on the Western Maryland Rail Trail. It has a great selection of freshly baked pies, many available by the slice. I chose a slice of crumb-topped Dutch apple pie and ate it on a picnic table outside. I also picked up a butter rum cake, a favorite of ours, to bring home.

I had spent the entire morning traveling about 70 miles. The 90 miles from Hancock to home would take an hour and a half. Travel by interstate highway has its place, but the National Road takes you through towns and countryside, not just past them, and rewards you with some roadside history along the way.

I highly recommend the drive. Just be sure to bring maps.

Historical photos: Maryland State Archives, Robert G. Merrick Archives of Maryland Historical Photographs.

More images and information: The National Road in Maryland (2019), by Robert P. Savitt, one of those “Images of America” books with sepia-toned covers, has dozens of historical photographs of the National Road from across Maryland, along with some concise historical background.

David Romanowski, 2021

The Rail Trails of Morgantown

Rails to Trails Conservancy in 2015 devoted one of its Rail Trail Sojourn bicycle tours to exploring the trails radiating from Morgantown, West Virginia, best known as the home of West Virginia University (and less known as the birthplace of actor and comedian Don Knotts). I didn’t get to go on that tour, but it piqued my interest. So for a short mid-summer getaway, I recently decided to drive 200 miles west to Morgantown to spend a couple of days exploring the local trail system.

The trails currently extend about 52 miles, branching off in three directions from Hazel Ruby McQueen Riverfront Park in downtown Morgantown. You can find the excellent trail map shown here on the Mon River Trails Conservancy website, as a brochure, and on directional signs along the trail.

The Trail System in Brief

The trail bridge over Decker’s Creek where it flows into the Monongahela.

The trail route that parallels the Monongahela River extends a seamless 33 miles but consists of several differently named trails. The 6-mile paved central section that passes through Morgantown and Star City is called the Caperton Rail Trail. North and south of it, the trail becomes compacted limestone (fine crushed gravel) and is known as the Mon River Rail Trail. The northern branch ends at the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border, where the 1.7-mile Sheepskin Rail Trail continues on to the town of Point Marion. The southern branch ends at Prickett’s Fort State Park. There, the Marion County (or MC) Trail picks up and extends another 2.5 miles to Fairmont.

The Deckers Creek Rail Trail, much different in character, branches off to the east, following the creek for more than 19 miles and gaining considerable altitude. The first couple of miles are paved; the rest is compacted limestone.

I originally planned to bike one branch a day all the way to its end. For various reasons I later decided to bike the entire northern branch after I arrived on my first day as planned, and then bike both of the other two branches the next day, but only partway.

Morgantown from my hotel room. The Monongahela flows through the trees at the left.

The Mon Trail North and Sheepskin Trail

I arrived in Morgantown at about 11:30 a.m., parked at Riverfront Park and paid for 4 hours of parking (75¢ per hour) with the ParkMobile app. Soon I was on the trail heading north.

The paved Caperton Trail through Morgantown and Star City is wide and smooth. It runs past some parks and small memorials, a water treatment plant, some other industrial facilities, and the university.

A typical view on the north Mon River Trail.

After about 4 miles it changes into the Mon River Trail, whose fine gravel surface is also wide and smooth. The trees that the trail tunnels through provided welcome shade on this hot day, but they also tended to obstruct my view of the river. They also obscured the industrial facilities on the far side, but those facilities were the most interesting thing to see along the way. I saw several places where coal was loaded onto barges, and passed the closest I ever have to a nuclear power plant.

I also went by several dams that regulate the water level in the river to keep it navigable, and locks for boats and barges to pass through, also on the far side. Those dams and locks essentially have made the Monongahela into one big canal. Thus, the river is flat and smooth and not especially interesting; no rocky rapids or waterfalls here.

The Mon Trail ends at the state border, where it morphs into the Sheepskin Trail. That trail ends in Point Marion, Pennsylvania, less than 2 miles away. I had hoped to find an ice cream place there and enjoy a cold midafternoon treat. No such luck. I spotted only a Subway and one small restaurant in this sad little town. I biked around for a while, took a few pictures, and headed back. The trail, which had been dry on my ride out, was now wet and puddled from a thunderstorm that had popped up behind me and had now moved on. Talk about perfect timing.

Back in town, I checked into the Hotel Morgan, just a few blocks from Riverfront Park. An elegant old hotel that opened in 1925, it had recently been renovated and was offering an introductory rate of 20% off its already reasonable prices. The hotel is a short distance from the bike trails and downtown restaurants. I highly recommend it if you plan to stay in Morgantown.

Right alongside the Caperton Trail in the Wharf District (a short drive or bike ride from the hotel) are a couple of restaurants—Mountain State Brewing Company and Oliverio’s Ristorante—both of which have nice covered patios facing the trail. I ended up eating dinner at the brewpub both days.

The Decker Creek Trail

Morning fog over the river.

Morning Morgantown was foggy and almost cool, but it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. I was out by 7:00 so I could bike the more strenuous of today’s trails before the day heated up.

The Decker Creek Trail is paved for the first couple of miles, but somewhat bumpier than the Caperton Trail. It follows Decker Creek and Route 7 out of town past fast food places, gas stations, and other businesses, before turning to smooth crushed gravel and heading into the woods—and uphill.

The trail ascends steadily for the next 10 miles, gaining 1,000 feet in elevation. Given that it’s a rail trail, the grade isn’t terribly steep, but it’s relentless. I maintained a steady speed of about 8 mph, and my legs felt it after a while. I was glad I had brought plenty of water. When the trail finally leveled out a little and my speed jumped to 9 or 10 mph, I felt like I was flying.

For most of its length, the trail runs through the woods and is nicely shaded. The surface was in good condition, with only a few washed out spots needing attention. The cascading creek was far below me in places and closer by in others, but as with the river on the Mon Trail, the creek was somewhat obscured by trees. Although it felt like I was deep in the woods, I could often still hear traffic on the nearby highway.

The trail passed right by a limestone quarry operation, but other than that, trees, cliffs, and occasional glimpses of the creek dominated the view. On my way up, I spotted three rabbits and two deer and passed about as many people. A groundhog scrambled across the trail on my way back.

Where the trail starts to level out past Mile 12, the terrain begins to change. Fields and marshes appear, and the trail repeatedly crosses the now meandering creek. I decided turn around at Mile 15, about 4.4 miles from the end, figuring I’d gotten a good enough sense of the trail.

The trip down was a breeze. I pedaled up to 15 or 16 mph, then coasted for a while until my speed dropped a couple of miles per hour, then pedaled and coasted again, repeating all the way down until the trail leveled out. I was back in Morgantown just before 11:00, and I was first in the door at the Stone Cold Creamery downtown for that long awaited dish of ice cream.

The Mon Trail South

After a refreshing scoop of mint chocolate chip, I headed back to the Caperton Trail and turned south. I passed yet another dam, shortly beyond which the paved Caperton Trail segued into the graveled Mon Trail.

Again, it was another pleasantly shaded forest ride, with the Monongahela a constant presence beside me through the trees. I startled several deer, who bounded into the safety of the woods. Biking a flat trail again was something of a relief after my morning ride on the Decker’s Creek Trail. But the Mon Trail did get a little, shall we say, monotonous after a while.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice trail. But after biking for 10 miles, I felt I’d gotten a good enough sense of it. I turned around at Mile 20. Had I chosen to make this my only day’s ride, I would have biked all the way to the Mon Trail’s end at Prickett’s Fort State Park, Mile 29. There, I could have picked up the MC Trail and biked for 2.5 more miles and through a 1,200-foot lighted railroad tunnel, for a total round trip of about 43 miles.

Parting Thoughts

Expansive as this trail system is, there are long-range plans to extend it. The Sheepskin Trail will eventually link up with the Great Allegheny Passage trail at Connellsville, Pennsylvania. That means that one day you’ll be able to bike from Washington, D.C., to Morgantown entirely on trails, just as you now can from D.C. to Pittsburgh.

There are proposals to extend the Mon River Trail farther south into Fairmont, and to continue the Decker’s Creek Trail farther east as well.

So many things about this country of ours are growing worse, from the political climate to the actual climate to polarized attitudes about everything to public civility and on and on. Yet one shining exception to this state of decline is the rail trail movement, led by Rails to Trails Conservancy.

I truly think we have entered a golden age of rails trails. Trail mileage is increasing every year, providing safer and healthier car-free ways of getting around for ever growing numbers of people and expanding off-road options for bicycle travel. As near Morgantown, many of these trails are being extended and linked to create networks that will one day have astonishing reach. This isn’t happening quickly, but progress seems inexorable.

And that’s something to be optimistic about.

David Romanowski, 2021

Picture Perfect: Finish Line

Albany, New York
July 17, 2011

We have just bicycled 400 miles across New York State along the Erie Canal. I’m at the far right. Next to me is Barb from Pennsylvania, who had her long hair shorn a few days ago because of the blistering heat. Flanking Barb are her younger brother Paul and her partner Cully. Next is Lester from Vermont. The blue shirts are New Yorkers Tad and Lea, whom I don’t know yet. Eight days ago, I didn’t know any of these people. Lester I’ll never see again. Paul and Cully will fade from my life. Barb, Tad, and Lea will become lasting friends.

Your life can turn on the shirt you choose to wear one morning. My Adventure Cycling T-shirt caught Barb’s eye and interest as she boarded the bus that would take us from Albany to Buffalo, where our Erie Canal bicycle tour would begin. We didn’t get to sit together, didn’t meet until a couple of days later. But once we did, I began riding and hanging out with her, along with a growing group of others drawn into her gravitational field.

Many of us exchanged email addresses and stayed in touch after the tour. We began rendezvousing on other cycling tours and also organizing bike trips of our own. Other friends we made along the way joined us too. Since that Erie Canal tour ten years ago, I’ve gone on two dozen separate biking excursions with various combinations of these friends—on cycling tours through New York’s Finger Lakes region, along coastal North Carolina, through eastern Pennsylvania, down the Florida Keys, and on six Bike Florida spring tours; and on self-organized bike trips in Vermont and New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, coastal South Carolina and Georgia, and Florida.

At a time when I’d begun to feel like I had crossed the finish line when it came to making friends, I found my life unexpectedly enriched. And it happened because a young woman, boarding a bus late, locked eyes with me and smiled.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2021

Back to the Building Museum

The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is one of the city’s lesser-known treasures and one of my favorite local museums.

I began volunteering at the visitor information desk in November 2019, just before the museum closed for several months for a major renovation of the floor in its Great Hall. The museum’s grand reopening was scheduled for March 2020, and we all know what happened then. The pandemic hit, Washington closed down, and the Building Museum never reopened that year.

The prolonged closure hit the museum hard. Many staff members lost their jobs, including almost everyone I had met there.

Sixteen months after closing down for the floor renovation, the museum finally reopened on a limited basis (Friday through Sunday) on April 9. A few weeks later, it began allowing volunteers to staff the information desk again, so I have been working there on Saturday mornings since May 15.

It’s great to be back. One of the things I liked when I began volunteering here was the museum’s smaller scale and more informal atmosphere, compared with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where I had been volunteering since 2016. The National Building Museum has a fraction of Natural History’s staff and visitors, and that’s part of its charm. Everyone I met here was enthusiastic, friendly, and welcoming, and that hasn’t changed.

Recovery from the pandemic shutdown will take time, but I’m hoping the museum will make a strong comeback.

The Building

Entering the National Building Museum for the first time is a jaw-dropping experience. In a city rich with impressively grand interior spaces, the museum’s Great Hall is one of the grandest. This cavernous space measures 316 feet long by 116 feet wide and rises 159 feet—almost 15 stories—at its highest point.

The massive Corinthian columns supporting the roof, among the tallest interior columns in the world, rise 75 feet and measure 8 feet in diameter. Despite their appearance (their surface is plaster painted to look like marble), they are made of brick, as is most of the building. Indeed, when completed in 1887, this was the largest brick building in the world.

The building was constructed in the 1880s as a fireproof structure to house the records and staff of the U.S. Pension Bureau, which tended to the needs of hundreds of thousands of Civil War veterans, and served as a memorial to the Union forces who fought in the war.

The Pension Building was designed by General Montgomery C. Meigs, who studied architecture and engineering at West Point and served as quartermaster general of the Union Army during the war. Among his many notable achievements was directing the construction of the Washington Aqueduct, which runs from Great Falls in Maryland to Washington. The Pension Building, Meigs’ final major project, is considered his masterpiece.

There is an admission charge to enter most of the museum exhibitions, but you can explore the rest of the building (up to the third level) for free. I recommend taking one of the docent-led building tours once they are offered again. Or pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the visitor information desk. The brochure points out many of the building’s intriguing features, revealing why, for example, the brick stairs throughout the building are so low and deep, and who those 235 life-size busts occupying the band of niches high above the center court represent.

The Museum

The Pension Bureau occupied the building until the 1920s, after which various other government offices were housed here. By the 1960s, it was badly in need of restoration. The government considered demolishing it, but historic preservationists prevailed. (It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.) A government study was commissioned to determine what to do with the building, and it recommended using it for a museum related to the building arts.

The National Building Museum was established by Congress in 1980, and it opened in the renovated Pension Building in 1985. The museum is a private, nonprofit organization that, unlike the Smithsonian, does not receive direct appropriations from Congress. (Become a member and lend your support!) The building itself is managed by the U.S. General Services Administration.

The soothing sound of the fountain fills the Great Hall and makes this a relaxing spot.

Describing to visitors what the museum’s exhibitions cover is a challenge. A National Register of Historic Places guide to the city describes the museum as “America’s premier cultural institution dedicated to exploring and celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction and urban planning,” which is a fairly good summary. Or as the museum’s mission statement more succinctly puts it, “The National Building Museum inspires curiosity about the world we design and build.”

The museum has featured special summer art installations that fill the Great Hall and invite visitors to explore and play. This was “Icebergs” in 2016.

Architecture and landscape architecture, engineering, construction, planning, and design all fall under the museum’s purview, but even that doesn’t begin to give a sense of the eclectic range of exhibitions the museum has presented—on parking garages, air conditioning, world’s fairs, national park roads and parkways, World War II and the American dream, grand old movie theaters, auto travel and the American landscape, transit and the American city, the home improvement movement, and much more.

My current favorite is House & Home, a long-term exhibition that features photographs and videos, exquisitely detailed architectural models of well-known residences, hands-on examples of building construction materials and methods, and a large selection household artifacts that will keep you pointing and reminiscing.

More than the floor was redone during the 2019–20 renovation. The museum created a new three-gallery Visitor Center that includes the ticketing desk and some introductory displays meant to give you a sense of the museum’s scope. It’s a beautiful space worth a visit itself.

The museum also regrouped its exhibitions, so most are now on the second floor, rather than scattered somewhat confusingly around two floors. The museum’s bookstore and shop, one of the most highly rated among local museums, is open; the café is not.

My hangout just outside the Visitor Center.

So come visit! Check the National Building Museum website for current information on hours and ticketing. Advance ticketing is encouraged, but tickets are usually available on a walk-in basis as well. If you arrive on a Saturday morning, you may even find me at the information desk doing my best to answer visitor questions. See you there!

David Romanowski, 2021

Picture Perfect: Niagara Dry

Niagara Falls, New York
June 1969

The walk is called the Cave of the Winds, but there is no cave anymore, and on this day no winds. No water either. Had my sisters and I been here a few weeks ago, the spray from the falls would have lashed our yellow rain slickers with gale force. Today, we face dry cliffs and tumbled rock. Niagara’s American Falls has been turned off.

The much larger Canadian Falls that has carved a horseshoe-shaped curve across the Niagara River between the Canadian shore and New York’s Goat Island still plunges into a curtain of mist, as grand as always. But on the U.S. side, massive rockfalls over the past few decades have reduced the vertical drop of the American Falls.

To determine if the rockfalls could be cleared out and perhaps the relentless erosion of the falls forestalled, a plan was created to dewater the American Falls for five months. The Army Corps of Engineers built a 600-foot-long cofferdam across the branch of the Niagara River that flows along the New York shore. On June 12, 1969, the final boulders were dumped into place, and the American Falls diminished to a trickle. We are among the throngs of visitors who have come to see Niagara stilled and silenced.

Earlier today, we walked out onto the dry rocks of the river above the falls, where raging rapids would have swept us downriver and over the brink, like the two people whose bodies were discovered among the rocks. In the final analysis, engineering and public opinion will hold that nature should be left to carve its own course. The rockfalls will remain in place and the dam dismantled. But for now, we can experience Niagara Falls as never before.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2021