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Hiking along Virginia’s Aquia Creek and finding history a stone’s throw from home

A boardwalk leads over wetlands to the historic Aquia Creek quarry, which yielded stone for the original U.S. Capitol. (Walter Nicklin for The Washington Post)
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A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the pictured cliff as limestone. In fact, it is sandstone. The story has been updated.

Watching the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, I was struck by a jarring contrast: noisy, violent chaos playing out against the silent and solemn stonework of the building’s classical architecture. Though windows, doors and decorations were smashed and shattered, the stones still stood, stately and untarnished.

Imagine how devastating it would have been had the stonework itself been defaced and left in ruins — a universal, visual trope for civilization’s collapse. I wanted to know more about those sturdy stones. Do they have a name? What kind of rock are they exactly? Where did they come from? Whose hands quarried and shaped them? What deep-time geological forces shaped the rock?

Curiosity — that animating impulse behind all travel — need not be diminished by the pandemic. To the contrary, being stuck at hermitage-like home finds me wondering about things that otherwise never would have captured my attention. In this instance, I was led through some Internet sleuthing to the discovery of something called Aquia Creek sandstone — which in turn led to yet more discoveries about building blocks of iconic places around the world.

Aquia Creek — after which this particular kind of sandstone takes its name — is a tidal tributary of the Potomac about 40 miles south of D.C. Though I live nearby, that there is a historic stone quarry on Aquia Creek is news to me. The quarry is even on the National Register of Historic Places, with a 17-acre park now known as Government Island. It made for a perfect pandemic day trip on a warm afternoon in early March.

My car followed the smartphone’s directions down Interstate 95 to Exit 143A. There it was led around suburban subdivisions to a cul-de-sac with an almost empty parking lot. Understated but informative signage confirmed that I had arrived at the Stafford County park called Government Island. More properly a peninsula (rising 25 to 35 feet above the surrounding wetlands), the place can nonetheless claim to be a metaphorical island in the heart of suburbia — accessible only on foot, with more waterfowl and wildlife than people.

Here, at the trailhead, I stepped onto a pedestrian boardwalk, elevated above scrub vegetation and marsh, that would take me to the historic quarry. It is a loop trail of less than two miles, and I had the place pretty much to myself except for some young couples with kids and/or dogs in tow. On a neighborhood stroll, it appeared — not on a quest like mine.

He set out to show his son the D.C. area’s 68 Civil War forts. Protests made it more than a diversion.

The first thing I learned from the pathway’s interpretive signs was that George Washington — who lived just upriver at Mount Vernon and who grew up at Ferry Farm only 10 miles away — would have been familiar with Aquia Creek sandstone. Easy to carve and freely split in any direction without shattering, the stone was commonly used throughout Virginia for pediments, quoins and other decorative details in 18th-century houses and churches.

So it is no surprise that in 1791, Pierre L’Enfant leased the island to quarry stone for the new capital city. Then it was known as Brent’s or Wigginton’s Island, after the families who owned it. Visitors today can experience the island pretty much as it was then, since there’s not the huge hole in the ground usually associated with the word “quarry.” Instead, the trail follows the island’s gentle contours around rocky outcroppings that seem to sprout up everywhere, often under a canopy of trees.

Where those rocks have been shaved into sheer, small-scale cliffs, there is evidence of the manual labor (sometimes done by an enslaved person) required to “rough-cut” the sandstone into manageable blocks. Before modern machinery, sledgehammers, wedges and chisels were the only tools available. You get a sense of the strength of will and imagination required to build not only a governmental temple from scratch, but a brand-new country as well.

Carved initials — R.S. — from one 18th-century mason are still clearly visible on a stone set near water’s edge. Scattered on the ground near that stone, alas, was other (impossible-not-to-notice) evidence of humans’ imprint on the island: 21st-century plastic bottles and foam. I should have picked up the litter and carried it away, but I didn’t — finding ready rationalization in possible covid-19 contamination.

To transport the sandstone blocks to the new federal city, skids — or what were sometimes called “stone boats” — were pulled by oxen to a wharf. Small, shallow-draft scows then took the stones to much bigger schooners or sloops, anchored in deeper water, for the trip up the Potomac. The work wasn’t easy: Each cubic square foot of stone weighed about 120 pounds.

On September 18, 1793, President Washington laid the cornerstone — made of Aquia sandstone — for the Capitol building. Like many of his contemporaries, Washington was a Freemason, so the ceremony was colored with Masonic pageantry. The cornerstone’s exact location is now unknown; during the insurrection, the symbolic cornerstone of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power — was also momentarily lost.

The evenly grained Aquia sandstone is known as a freestone because it can be freely cut and chiseled in any direction without shattering or splitting. Designs by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe can be seen today in some of the Capitol building’s most elaborate carvings, such as the fluting on interior columns to resemble cornstalks.

During a time of immobility, researching the history of my London neighborhood is a simple route to solace

But what makes Aquia Creek sandstone easy to shape also makes its exterior susceptible to weathering and erosion. Thus, after the Capitol was burned during the War of 1812, reconstruction made use of marble — a harder, metamorphic rock found on the upper Potomac. I was learning that a rock is not just a rock. I wanted to know more, and reached out to retired University of Virginia geology professor Thomas H. Biggs.

The Aquia Creek sandstone, he explained, was created from river-born sediments over 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. It forms part of the Patuxent Formation — named after the eponymous Maryland river — running north-south along the fall line. Its heavy concentration of feldspar grains — known as arkose — means the rock is inevitably prone to chemical decay.

This deep-time perspective can add appreciation and levels of meaning to any travel destination, I realize. Even during the pandemic, from the laptop in my home, I can roam the world through excursions into geology.

Take the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for example. Being rebuilt from the 2019 fire, it is not yet open to the public, so I might as well “visit” from the other side of the Atlantic. The cathedral’s building blocks are Lutetian limestone, unique to this part of France, formed in a shallow sea during the Eocene period about 45 million years ago.

The descriptor comes from the Roman name for the place that would become Paris — Lutetia. Much of Parisian architecture, from the Louvre to Haussmann’s 19th-century renovations, relied upon this cream-gray stone of varying brightness — creating the “City of Light” ambiance.

Many of the original quarries and mines, now depleted, lie beneath the city itself. Some were converted into catacombs. More recently, quarries about 30 miles north of Paris specialize in an especially hard variety of Lutetian limestone fashionable in upscale building projects around the world. Like wine or cheese producers, the quarries have even applied for an appellation contrôlée designation.

What I keep learning is that stones, when useful and cherished, seldom stay in one place. Like human travelers, they have stories to tell.

One of the most well-known is Stonehenge, the Neolithic monument on England’s Salisbury Plain. As in all good stories that take on the quality of myth, mysteries are never fully explained, and so it is with Stonehenge as archaeologists and historians are always finding new clues in the rock record. The latest findings seem to confirm the 12th-century Arthurian legend about the wizard Merlin’s capture of a magical stone circle to resurrect it many miles away as a memorial to the dead.

Stonehenge’s familiar ring of vertical standing stones are made of sarsen — a local sandstone weighing roughly 25 tons each. Inside is yet another ring, dating back at least 2,000 years, made of so-called bluestones — igneous rocks, each weighing between two and four tons, not indigenous to the area.

Where these bluestones can be found in abundance, however, is 150 miles away in Wales at a place called the Preseli Hills. Newly discovered remnants of a nearby stone circle seem to confirm the theory that a stone shrine was dismantled and somehow dragged to the Stonehenge site — there to be venerated anew.

The impulse to move rocks and make a mark on the landscape remains very much alive today, as evidenced by cairns left by tourists whether on the Maine coast or Alpine passes. Written not in words but in stones are perhaps the world’s most enduring travel stories.

Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.

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