I found myself reading about different types of stones and quarries, and books by the Montgomery County Planning Board, and the mechanics of an aqueduct. But don’t let that put you off. If you’re willing to wade with me through some of this, you’ll learn a few things about Rocklands Farm. And you might just have a few new places to visit.
Just an 11-minute bike ride from Rocklands Farm, the former coal transportation passage now serves as a pathway for walkers, cyclists and nature lovers wanting to explore a different side of Washington. It’s one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. It also has something foundational in common with Rocklands Farm.
Rocklands Farm owner and resident historian Janis Glenn once walked me around the side of the main farmhouse and showed me where the name of the original home owner (Benoni Alnutt of Homestead Farm) is etched into the stone wall, along with the year 1870. That stone is called Seneca sandstone (yep, the name of another Rocklands wine). It has a unique red color and is very pretty, but back in the day, it was so rocky all along the property that no one wanted to buy the farm initially. Hence the name, Rocklands.
The Seneca quarry closed in 1901, but it was once a bustling worksite on the edge of the C&O. You can visit the quarry ruins today, and as happens with most ruins, you really do feel like you’re stepping back in time. The sandstone from that quarry was used to build the nearby Seneca Creek Aqueduct on Lock 24 of the canal. It’s now just known as Riley’s Lock, named after the Riley family that served as its lockkeepers for many years.
As author Garrett Peck put it in his incredibly helpful account of The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry: “out of the long-forgotten Seneca quarry came that most wondrous building material: red sandstone.” He goes on to describe how Seneca sandstone was used to construct not only the Smithsonian Castle, but other DC landmarks as well.
Janis has told me this before, too, and I never cease to be amazed by the fact that something much older than me can be seen and experienced in two places that seem so different, but share something at their heart.
Remember how I said the C&O also has something in common with Rocklands Farm? The C&O used to bring people together through mules and boats, but now it does so with biking trails and hikes and historical sites. It may have been short-lived as a working canal, and it never made it all the way to the intended Ohio River, but the canal still does today what it was always supposed to do: make connections.
Sometimes these connections take hard work. Associate Justice William O. Douglas had to fight to keep the canal from becoming a parkway in 1954. I highly recommend reading all of his canal-saving letter to the Washington Post, but here’s my favorite quote:
“It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door — a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.”
What I love most about Douglas’ editorial is that the end of it included an invitation for connection, not debate. He invited the Washington Post editors to join him to hike the entire canal, and the rest is history (and a beautiful story at that). In fact, our friends with the Montgomery Countryside Alliance are on a similar mission in present day, to preserve and protect the entirety of the Agricultural Reserve.
When I tell people about Rocklands, my description is along the lines of the Douglas quote — albeit much less poetic. Part of its rural charm is that it’s still close enough to the city to be a viable retreat option. You can make it there and back in an afternoon.
Rocklands Farm invites a mix of people to come and connect. Some are coming from DC; others are coming from down the road. No matter where they’re coming from, they can share history and find common ground over a glass of C&O.
It’s also my hope that this post, and more like it to come, will give you something to look for when you’re next at Rocklands. Take your glass of wine and take a stroll around a historic property that’s been around since people used mules to transport coal.