“I have seen for several hours together in a summer’s evening, hundreds, perhaps I might say thousands of sturgeon, at a great height from the water at the same instant”. This written by a visitor to George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate in 1780.
The most recent Shore Story from One Hundred Shores focused on the sturgeon’s more modern condition in the Chesapeake, and- as I’ve mentioned in previous Shore Stories- I’m big into coincidences. So, when I just this week flipped open Ron Chernow’s Washington biography, I couldn’t help but fixate on the ever so brief mentioning of sturgeon in the Potomac.
This shore story has nothing to do with sturgeon however. Instead, we’re focused on what you’d see (or more accurately, not see) when you look out from Mt. Vernon today.
If you’ve been to Mt. Vernon, one of the key elements of the pastoral visit is to make you, as a visitor, feel as if you’re walking through the estate that Washington once walked on himself. Across the paths and through the halls, and especially as you walk out onto the bluff overlooking the Potomac River, the experience relies on a connection to place through the preservation of the original setting.
Of course, to imagine walking in the footsteps of George Washington means wholly different things to different people. It’s my belief that the diversity of the stories and perspectives which can be told from across our Chesapeake watershed are one of the reasons why this watershed is so important in the first place. I like to imagine what those different perspectives might be, even if I’m still a neophyte in uncovering those truths myself.
Putting Mt. Vernon in perspective from across the river at Piscataway Park is a unique sight. There’s a bit of a stillness to the shore here- almost a stagnant feeling if I’m being honest. The approach to each park sets the tone early on.
You arrive to Mt. Vernon along a cobbled brick parkway. You find your way into one of the many parking lots before entering the expansive visitor center and gift shop. At Accokeek, there’s a question of whether you’ve arrived in the right place. A few heavily pocked dirt and gravel roads lead you to parking areas, and make you question whether this is even publicly accessible at all. The bumps and potholes convey a physically jolting difference in how preservation takes on different meanings when you arrive at these closely connected sites. There’s also entrance fees at Mt. Vernon which run around $30. At Accokeek, you might see a sign encouraging you to stop by the visitor center. That visitor center might be open.
Acccording to NPS data, Mount Vernon welcomes over one million visitors each year. Tour buses arrive daily during school season. Piscataway Park enjoys roughly 20,000 visitors a year, according to the NPS website. It’s also free. There’s a sign for tour buses to be sure, but I imagine they’re a rare sight.
What you’ll more likely find is a few sparse visitors walking the trails, or fishing from the public pier. From the shore, you can see Mt. Vernon in plain sight. Which, is in truth what the goal is with this collection of shorelines. The reality is that the undisturbed Accokeek shore exists in the interest of protecting Mt. Vernon’s viewshed. It just seems to be forgotten by its better-known counterpart.
It’s an odd feeling to know that you’re standing in a place which is being preserved in the interests of a wholly different place. From this distance across the water, you might be able to hear shouts from the Mt. Vernon wharf. “Just stay there! And don’t do anything!” is what it might sound like. It’s a peculiar situation- and in many ways one unique to this shoreline.
It's not a distinction I take exception to however. In fact, the uniqueness of certain shorelines and those distinctions they hold are what make them interesting in the first place. After all, the National Colonial Farm sits along the shore of the Accokeek Park, but truth be told that operation could take place anywhere. This place remains because it’s the only view one would want to see when imagining what Washington would see from up on his hill. What stands out about the shoreline here is that it’s not meant to stand out. It’s meant to blend in, and be exactly as we’d picture it to be from the other side.
The river-spanning dynamic is not new, nor is it settled. As recently as 2018 in fact, a proposed natural gas facility through Dominion Energy was brought down due to concerns about smokestack height. Proposals for developments along the shore stretch back into the 50’s and 60’s. Various project proposals came and went for the Accokeek shoreline, but were all met with resistance and eventually defeated. And in what must have been a rare win for the voices of indigenous people, the sacredness of the land to Piscataway people helped to preserve the lands through those previous generations as well.
Now, this thin little peninsula of Southern Maryland is overseen by the Accokeek Foundation, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, the Moyaone Reserve, the National Park Service, The Piscataway, and still the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association across the river. Each hold their own mission and values for why this piece of land should remain. Not to mention other environmental groups which keep a broader watch over the region’s development.
The long and short of it is a lot of people saying “You’re not allowed to do that there, because we’re over here.” Which- surprisingly- is an argument that works here. Attempts to preserve shorelines because of their environmental impact on various Chesapeake rivers seem to fail just as often as they succeed. I suspect those fights will never end. And the marginalization of First Nation Tribes in the interest of development is a story as old as America itself (stay tuned for an upcoming story on how that’s changing). Accokeek has that trifecta of environment, sanctity, and on top of all that, status. I can’t help but think that if this small neck of the Potomac didn’t keep the history of George Washington as well, the smokestacks or sewage treatment facility might well be the reality of the landscape.