Braddock’s Rock: Launching point for a military expedition, or a mere legend?


The top of a stone well surrounds what's left of Braddock's Rock that now sits next to a D.C. onramp to the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist February 15

In a city of memorials, among the strangest must surely be the one known as Braddock’s Rock. Answer Man confesses that until recently he hadn’t heard of it. He still hasn’t actually seen it.

Even if it weren’t 16 feet underground — at the bottom of what’s been called “a well-like structure” — Braddock’s Rock isn’t in the most pleasant of locations. It’s by the side of an on-ramp that leads to the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, due west of the U.S. Institute of Peace, near 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

There you will find a circular stone assemblage about three feet high and five feet across. It’s topped by a rusty metal grate that is welded in place. A nearby plaque explains that this is where Gen. Edward Braddock landed April 14, 1755. The English officer had sailed up from Alexandria to lead an expeditionary force northwest to fight in the French and Indian War.

Things did not go well for Braddock. On July 9, 1755, the general and more than 400 of his men were killed in an ambush near Fort Duquesne, in present-day Pittsburgh.

So, all in all, not a good end for Braddock. Perhaps things had looked brighter three months earlier when, according to legend, the general stepped from a boat onto the rock that would later bear his name.

The area looked quite different 260 years ago. For starters, there was that rock, a loaf-like outcropping of granite that jutted into the Potomac. Fairly early on in Colonial times, it appears to have earned the accurate, if not very creative, name the Big Rock.

The stone was well known in the area, serving as a reference point when laying out land grants in those pre-GPS days. Another name for it was the Key of Keys, i.e., a fixed spot useful for surveying. (It also has been called the Quay of Quays, related to its putative use as a place at which to disembark from a boat.) At some point it came to be associated with Braddock.

The intervening years were not kind to the rock. So great was the need for building materials in the rapidly growing city that much of it was quarried for use in foundations across Washington. Half of the remainder was blasted away during construction of the C&O Canal.

Of course, a present-day visitor will notice that Braddock’s Rock is nowhere near the river and that it’s well below ground level. That’s because the ground rose up around it as various marsh reclamation projects were undertaken and the contours of the Potomac were altered. (The nearby Lincoln Memorial, you will recall, was built on wetlands that were filled in.)

In 1899, historian Marcus Benjamin prepared a report on the history of the rock for the Colonial Dames of America. There was concern at the time that Braddock’s Rock was threatened. The vicinity was trash-strewn and the rock was a shadow of its former self.

Concluded Benjamin: “While it is true that no positive evidence that General Braddock ever landed at the rock which bears his name has been found, still the tradition is so strong and is confirmed by so many writers, whose opinions are worthy of acceptance, that it seems to me that we are justified in accepting it as true.”

That kind of reasoning infuriates some historians, including Don Alexander Hawkins, who has studied the changing physical landscape of Washington. He thinks the contemporary references to Braddock’s landing point are too vague to assign it to the rock.

Furthermore, Don argues that it wouldn’t have made sense to land there. Rock Creek empties into the Potomac north of the rock, and Don thinks Braddock wouldn’t have wanted to start his long march with having to cross it. While Georgetown — founded just four years earlier — had wharves, Don reasons that Braddock wouldn’t have used them, since they were needed for commerce.

“I feel pretty strongly that the idea that this was Braddock’s rock grew up much later,” he said.

Still, the association was strong enough that before the Roosevelt Bridge opened in 1964, the D.C. highway department constructed the protective stone cylinder that leads down to the rock. Ladder rungs are set into the wall. Don Hawkins climbed down there once to take a look. He reports that Braddock’s Rock is at the bottom, occasionally covered in water from the surging of the tidal Potomac.

We probably wouldn’t care about any of this except for one of the people who volunteered to accompany Braddock and serve as his aide-de-camp. He was a tall, 23-year-old Virginia planter named George Washington. No doubt his experiences on that ill-fated expedition were in his mind years later when he fought not alongside the British, but against them.

Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@
washpost.com
.Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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