Point of Rocks: Exploring Point of Rocks Village
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These itineraries, “Canal Towns: In the Shadows of the Civil War,” were developed, in part, with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. Photographs were provided by Judy Olsen Photography unless otherwise noted.
Point of Rocks has been an important crossroads of travel since early Native American times, and even today sees a lot of stoppers-by—even by foot, bike, boat, or horse along the C&O Canal towpath and adjacent Potomac River.
Though quieter these days, the village was a bustle of commerce from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century. Hotels, restaurants, mills, shops, a post office, two train stations, and more served residents, local farmers, railroad and canal workers, and travelers. Regular flooding of the Potomac forced some to rebuild more than once. But when the great flood of 1936 destroyed homes and businesses, many were never rebuilt. By then the C&O Canal had largely fallen out of use.
Today, the towpath is a mecca for recreationists, and the Point of Rocks area is a nice staging point. From here you can visit two of the C&O’s spectacular aqueducts, access two lockhouses, and view two railroad tunnels with beautiful brick facades.
On this journey in the Point of Rocks area see some of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal’s most impressive reconstructed aqueducts and learn about Civil War events that took place near here. Also, explore the bucolic countryside of the surrounding mountains and valleys, or head to Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick.
Other nearby towns of interest include Brunswick, Frederick, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Exploring Point of Rocks Village
This itinerary explores the small community of Point of Rocks and sites related to the Civil War, C&O Canal, and B&O Railroad. The town lies at mile 48.2 along the C&O. You can park at the commuter train station (3800 Clay Street) or at the C&O Canal parking area along the river off Commerce Street.
Stroll through the village and admire the attractive little churches along Clay Street and Kanawha Avenue. At 3729 Clay Street the Fervency Lodge is the local Masonic Lodge, built in 1898 by Andrew Colbert. He also built the Solid Rock Church across the street.
Don’t miss the photogenic train station (MARC Train parking lot on Clay Street). Built in 1875 by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O), the charming Victorian station is on the Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. The building (now owned by CSX Corporation) is currently closed to the public, but the station is a stop along the MARC commuter line, which runs between Washington, D.C., and Martinsburg, West Virginia. So if you don’t want to drive to Point of Rocks, you can take the train. (Note: no weekend service; eastbound only service in morning, westbound only service in evenings. Other stops at Harpers Ferry and Brunswick are within easy biking along the towpath to Point of Rocks.)
In September gather for Art at the Point, a 1-day juried festival of arts and crafts, held at the community commons on Clay Street near the C&O Canal. Craft demonstrations, food, and music round out the festival.
Twice a year (December and Easter) the local Ruritans host a pancake breakfast to raise money for scholarships. If you’re in town, be sure to drop by the Community Center at 1635 Ballenger Creek Pike and load up on carbs for that bike ride or hike along the towpath. Check the website for details and dates.
Once you’ve explored the village, head out along the C&O Canal towpath.
Battle for the Point
Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal began in 1828 with a ceremony featuring President John Quincy Adams. The bold project would enhance commercial trade between Washington, D.C., and points west—all the way to the Ohio River. But in 1850 canal construction stopped at Cumberland, MD, in the wake of numerous difficulties. The railroad had arrived three years earlier. The B&O replaced the canal as the primary mover of goods. Today the towpath is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, offering 184.5 miles of recreation by foot, bicycle, or horse (permits may be required).
Little did anyone know in 1828 that both the B&O Railroad and canal would become part of a battleground in a war that would divide the nation years later. Even before the Civil War, however, another battle waged in Point of Rocks, this one between the C&O and the B&O. By 1832 both the canal and railroad had reached Point of Rocks, where both companies had been battling over a narrow strip of land between the rocks and the river just west of the village. After a four-year battle, the courts favored the canal company, which had nearly gone broke from legal fees. The canal and railroad then compromised: the railroad could help fund the canal in exchange for sharing the narrow passage.
The Civil War Comes to Town
As you travel along the towpath imagine what it must have been like here during the Civil War. The Potomac River and the canal were frequently crossed by troops from both sides on the way to and from various campaigns. Troops traded volleys across the water, and smaller battles erupted here and there along its banks. Confederate troops confiscated boats, destroyed locks, and raided supply stores.
You can read more about the many skirmishes that took place near Point of Rocks during the war in the “Pocket Guide to the Civil War on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal” and the book “Trembling in the Balance: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal During the Civil War,” both available at C&O Canal visitor centers.
West on the towpath from POR
Rebels burned the bridge across the Potomac here in 1862 to impede Federals from entering Virginia. Incidentally, what is now US Highway 15 through POR was once part of the old Carolina Road, a major north–south corridor since before the arrival of Columbus.
Just west of the US 15 underpass you can see Point of Rocks tunnel, first blasted into the rocks in 1868. This was the “point of rocks” over which the railroad and canal fought. Before the tunnel was built, the tracks and canal shared the narrow passage between rock and river from here to Harpers Ferry, WV. In 1902 the tunnel was enlarged, and brick facing on both entrances added an artistic touch. There was even a large turning basin just east of the tunnel but it was filled in with rock debris when the tunnel was blasted.
Catoctin Tunnel is the next one as you head west along the towpath. It too was built at the same time as POR tunnel and also enhanced with brick facing.
Continue west to Lockhouse 28 at mile 48.9. Experience what life might have been like for keepers of the canal locks by spending the night in restored Lockhouse. Lockhouse 28 is part of the Canal Quarters program, and each lockhouse is refurnished to represent different eras during the days of the C&O Canal. Built in 1837, Lockhouse 28 represents the canal’s early days. The brick structure has no electricity or running water. The portable toilet is outside—and probably much more comfortable than the house’s original. You have to walk up the towpath to mile 50.3 to pump water at the nearby campsite, a true 1830s experience!
In 1862 during the Antietam Campaign the bridge across Lock 28 was destroyed. Also here Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby and his Rangers crossed the river on July 4, 1864, on one of their many “Calico Raids,” during which Rebels captured an excursion boat with Treasury Department officials on board. They looted the passengers, took some prisoner, and burned the boat then headed downstream to Point of Rocks village. There they raided stores, taking—among many other supplies—bolts of calico cloth; hence the name “Calico Raids.”
Next along the path is Lockhouse 29 at Lander. There was once a turning basin here but it’s now filled in. In June 1863 Confederates attacked a train near the lockhouse, following it to Point of Rocks, where they captured the engineer and 15 passengers before burning the train.
Though not part of the Canal Quarters Program, Lockhouse 29 has been restored and turned into a living history museum from the 1920s time period. You can see the inside on Saturdays during summer (11 am–2 pm). For more details contact the Lander Community Association at Catoctinkey@gmail.com.
Continuing west, at mile 51.5 see the stunning Catoctin Aqueduct, one of 11 such bridges along the C&O canal that were once filled with water. The aqueducts carried boats over major creeks that emptied into the Potomac. Catoctin was rebuilt in 2011 using 459 of the original stones. The structure was known as the “crooked aqueduct” because boats had to make a sharp turn to enter it. But the aqueduct was never structurally sound and often leaked. The culprit was its elliptical center arch, weaker than the adjacent semicircle arches. Two arches collapsed in 1973, and the stones were buried until the aqueduct could be restored. Take the short trail down to the creek to a viewing area, where you can admire the artistry of the reconstruction. Interpretive signs describe the process.
Brunswick is just 3.5 miles farther west along the towpath (mile 55). From here, you can enjoy other itineraries that trace the C&O Canal and Civil War.
East on the towpath from POR
Near the boat launch in POR you’ll see the western tip of Heater’s Island, a tear-drop-shaped land mass so big it’s hard to tell it’s an island as you head east toward Calico Rocks campground. Union pickets were stationed here and on other nearby islands during the Civil War. Early Native Americans had camps here, and the island was used as a river crossing point. Farmed until the early 1970s, the island is now a state wildlife management area.
Continue east to Nolands Ferry at mile 44.6. Here, Ebenezer Floyd ran a ferry beginning in 1742. In 1754, Philip Noland took over the operations. The area once had a country store, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, and a tailor and shoemaker. Thomas Jefferson even crossed here on May 10, 1776, on his way from Charlottesville, VA, to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to help draft the Constitution.
Nolands Ferry was also a crossing during the Civil War. In September 1862, Confederate General A.P. Hill’s troops crossed here during the Antietam Campaign. Two years later, Mosby’s Raiders tried to cross but the 8th Illinois Cavalry held them back.
Also near this area the Nolands Ferry Archaeological site is on the National Register of Historic Places. At mile 43 there was once a large bolder in the middle of the river, which formed the downstream apex of one of the best preserved fish weirs in the lower Potomac. From a boat you may be able to see traces of the V-shaped rock dam built by Indians and colonists to channel fish into sluices or pens, where they could be caught in net baskets, speared, or caught with hook and line.
The site’s history goes back even further in time. Artifacts unearthed in the 1970s indicate the site overlooking Tuscarora Creek was nearly continuously occupied from 8500 BC to AD 1800. It was most intensively occupied from 1350 to 1450, and among some of the finds were a Late Woodland period village with trash pits and burial areas ringing an open plaza. Today the archaeological components remain buried but you will find parking, a boat ramp, restrooms, and picnicking at Nolands Ferry.
From Nolands Ferry continue downstream another 2.4 miles to Monocacy Aqueduct, the canal’s longest—516 feet. On the way, pass Indian Flats, a hiker-biker campground (free; first come first served; water pump in summer, fire rings, toilets, picnic tables). The seven-arch Monocacy Aqueduct was built mostly from stone quarried at nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. There used to be a turning basin downstream where boats would load wheat and flour from the local mill. The stone walls by the parking lot are all that remain of the mill. There’s a boat ramp here and picnicking.
During the 1862 Antietam Campaign, the lock tender, Thomas Walker, persuaded Confederate General Hill from blowing up the Monocacy Aqueduct. Walker recommended that Hill drain the canal as a substitute to destroying the aqueduct by boring through the towpath bank. Hill chose instead to damaged Lock 27, and Walker was fired even though he saved surely one of the canal’s most impressive aqueducts. With support from locals, however, Walker got his job back.
From Monocacy Aqueduct, you can turn around and head back to Point of Rocks or continue downstream 0.7 mile to see Lock 27 at Spinks Ferry.
Monocacy National Battlefield
From Point of Rocks you can drive to the main visitor center for the Monocacy National Battlefield, located on Maryland Route 355 about 3 miles south of Frederick. The battle was fought on July 9, 1864, and was part of the Valley Campaigns. For more information about Frederick, visit Frederick County Maryland online. In particular, be sure to visit the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (Mon–Sat 10 am–5 pm, Sun 11 am–5 pm; entry fee). Artifacts, illustrations, and exhibits tell the story of the sick and wounded, surgical and care techniques, the hospital structure, role of nurses, and the challenges of field medicine.