FRANKLIN, W. Va. – A shallow, rock-filled river winds through valleys shadowed by rolling mountains. Small farms, some with cattle and others with chickens, line its shores.
The modest river — the South Branch of the Potomac — flows on, joining its Northern brother to form a waterway seminal to American history.
Eighty-seven years ago, dreams of a greater Maryland died. For centuries, the colony and then the state had claimed the South Branch and all the territory north of it as hers. In 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that plea.
The border dispute arose from a 1632 colonial grant by King Charles I setting Maryland’s southern border at the Potomac River’s “first fountain,” said Gilbert Gude, a Potomac historian and former congressman from Montgomery County.
Maryland, however, charged that surveying errors, deliberate or otherwise, had improperly set the border at the North Branch. But that was of little importance to the high court.
Maryland’s claim was void, the court wrote, because generations of people living in the Potomac headwater area had accepted the North Branch as Maryland’s border. The court said long-standing custom overrode any surveyors’ errors.
The claims may have been legitimate, Gude said. Early explorers, one of them Thomas Jefferson’s father, followed the bends of the Potomac that had the most water. The surveyors were in the service of Lord Fairfax, a Virginia noble.
“They were somewhat biased,” Gude added, and likely mapped the border in such a way as to increase their employer’s land. They fixed it in 1747 by their setting of the Fairfax Stone — a replica now stands there — at the head of the Potomac’s North Branch.
And that’s where the border has remained.
“You can make a good argument that the surveyors that had made this boundary were wrong,” Gude said, because the South Branch of the Potomac is as legitimate a part of the river as the North Branch.
If Maryland had won its court challenge, a new and extensive surveying effort would have been required, Gude said.
One glance at a map of the eastern tip of West Virginian will show a web of rivers, many with Potomac in their names. Gude said which river would have been the real “first fountain” would have been up-in-the-air.
Maryland’s dispute was initially with Virginia. But it passed to West Virginia when Congress formed the state in 1863 out of Virginia counties that refused to secede.
When Maryland lost its bid to pick up the land north of the South Branch, it lost towns like Petersburg, Moorefield, and Keyser, all belonging to West Virginia. And it also lost an area with both a rich and complicated past.
The Allegheny Mountains find their origin 440 million years ago in an ancient inland sea. Layers of sand built up, finally breaking through the water. Mountain growth finished about 200 million years ago, followed by the rain and wind that whittled the region’s features down to the jagged and craggy shapes sightseers witness today.
Native Americans entered the Potomac headwater area about 12,000 years ago. Their hunting and trading paths now serve as the basis for such roads as U.S. 33 and U.S. 220. Many of the early European settlers included sympathizers to the British side during the Revolutionary War.
“The history of West Virginia to the Civil War was that there just wasn’t a lot of people here,” said Julie Fosbender, head of the visitors’ center at Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area.
But the invention of the Shay steam locomotive literally changed everything. The engine, able to climb the region’s steep hills and mountains, facilitated increased settlement and logging, which by the turn of the century stripped the area clear of most its trees and vegetation.
Also fueling the demand for trees was Petersburg’s tannery, said Larry Dehaven, a Potomac area park ranger. Area residents peeled the bark off felled timber to extract the tannic acid necessary to make leather, he said.
“The tannery was a fairly large business for those communities,” Dehaven said.
The destruction of the forest set the stage for more disaster.
In 1907, massive rains hit the Alleghenies, Fosbender said. With no trees to help absorb the water, the rain flooded the region’s many valleys, causing $100 million in agricultural damage. The flood raged all the way to Pittsburgh, causing deaths and $8 million in destruction to the city.
And from the pieces of trees not worth the logger’s time to remove came occasional forest fires so intense soil was incinerated, Fosbender said.
But the forest came back. Operating in the area from 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corp had at its peak 7,000 men replanting and rebuilding the wilds.
Among experts “it was hotly contested what the forest originally looked like,” Fosbender said.
Dehaven said restoration, although done well, hasn’t returned the forest to past glories. Few trees are older than 85 years, and most are of similar height, he said. Virgin forests typically comprise trees of varying heights.
The timber industry, now more carefully managed, remains important to the South Branch region. The area “has some of the most productive and valuable forest in the Eastern Seaboard,” Dehaven said. Red oak and black cherry are harvested for use in furniture manufacturing.
Also lost to Maryland was the Monongahela National Forest and its neighboring Seneca Rocks. An imposing mountain jutting from a sea of conifers and other trees, Seneca Rocks is a favorite of rock climbers. Made of tough quartz-enriched Tuscarora sandstone, the cliffs are crossed with climbing paths bearing names like Crispy Critter, Madmen Only, and Ecstasy Junior. During World War II, the 10th Mountain Division trained at Seneca Rocks.
And Southwest of Seneca Rocks is Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest mountain at about 4,800 feet above sea level.
Losing land is nothing new to Maryland, said George Callcott, a University of Maryland history professor.
In decision after decision, Maryland has come out on the losing end. Callcott said much of the blame rests on how the Catholic faith of the state’s rulers put them at odds with the Protestantism of England’s kings and the surrounding colonies.
Religious prejudice may have been a factor in the 1631 royal decision that pushed Maryland’s border down from where it nearly met Philadelphia, Callcott said.
The Potomac headwaters region, challenged in the past, may be facing new problems today. The growth of the poultry industry worries Margaret Janes, leader of the Potomac Headwaters Resource Alliance.
Poultry “is the dominant economic factor in the area” and a major employer, Janes said. She fears the same environmental consequences linked to poultry farm run-off on the Eastern Shore.
“We have six tributaries of the South Branch” with water quality violations relating to farm run-off, Janes said, pointing out that the Potomac is a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Petersburg Mayor Russ. Hedrick Jr. shares her concerns. During the early 1940s, the poultry industry also dominated the Potomac headwater area, he said. But changing economics led the firms to pull out, heading for better opportunities down south.
“History repeats itself … and now they’re courting us again,” Hedrick said. He hopes West Virginia’s leadership will take steps to ensure the Potomac headwater’s majesty remains as it is today.
Referring to West Virginia as “the Switzerland of America,” Hedrick said he’s happy the Supreme Court kept the status quo back in 1910. West Virginia’s state motto is “mountaineers always free,” Hedrick said, adding that those of the South Branch area “are their own people and want to remain so.” -30-