A Republican representative from Georgia, Jody Hice, wants to rename Gravelly Point Park and call it Nancy Reagan Memorial Park. I wonder if there’s anything else he wants to rename while he’s at it. The Rocky Mountains? The Great Salt Lake? The Grand Canyon?
That fact is, Gravelly Point has a perfectly good name already, a name that — like those other landmarks — has the rather commendable quality of being refreshingly honest. Gravelly Point, on the Potomac just above Reagan National Airport (don’t get me started), is named after gravel.
Gravel, you say? Ugh, you say? Boring, you say?
To which I say: Pshaw.
Gravel was created by the great geologic processes that have raked this planet since its birth 4 billion years ago. This town is built on gravel and its little brother, sand. And a heck of a lot of it came from the area around Gravelly Point, scooped from the bottom of the Potomac like so much Klondike gold.
“Gravel is truly one of the most fundamental building blocks in America,” said Bailey Wood, vice president of communications for the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, located about five miles from Gravelly Point, in Alexandria. “We commonly say around here that there is nothing of significance built in this country that doesn’t start with a rock. And gravel is a fundamental component of that.”
As lovely as Nancy Reagan may have been, she didn’t literally provide the foundation for our city.
Take the Pentagon. In “The Pentagon: A History,” author Steve Vogel recounts the construction of the famed five-sided office building, which required massive amounts of gravel-hungry concrete.
“The location chosen to construct such a building was a wise one, from the standpoint of the basic ingredients needed,” Vogel writes. “Just south of the site, beneath the waters of the Potomac and below a layer of soft mud, lay a boundless supply of sand and gravel.”
It was these deposits that gave the area its name.
“Gravelly Point is a landform geologists call a point bar, because of its location on the inside of a big bend in the river,” said geologist Tony Fleming, author of “Geologic Atlas of the City of Alexandria, Virginia and Vicinity.” “That’s where you get sand and gravel deposited in a river.”
Each pebble was born hundreds of miles away and millions of years ago. Gravel began as massive chunks of bedrock, like you see surrounding the gorge at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Big rocks fell into the Potomac, which during the last ice age was a much more violent river.
The rocks tumbled down the river, driven by the churning, fast-moving water.
“As they’re transported downstream, they get abraded,” Tony said. “Eventually they get abraded into a smaller size and get more rounded.”
Broken but unbowed, each stone came to settle in the slower-moving inside bend of the river, creating vast islands of gravel: Gravelly Point.
Said Tony: “That could well be some Colonial name given by some luminary, like George Washington.”
That’s right: House Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee, who advanced a bill sponsored by Hice on a party-line vote, want to take away a name that may have been bestowed by the father of our country.
In the 19th century, the gravel in our stretch of the Potomac started to create great fortunes. The largest company was Smoot Sand & Gravel. It was Smoot sand that gritted the District’s icy roads in winter. It was Smoot gravel that strengthened the concrete of its buildings.
Smoot bought up riverfront land on both sides of the river, owning parcels between the 14th Street Bridge and Fort Belvoir. It dug into the riverbed, pocketing the prize gravel and creating channels useful for shipping.
In a 1958 article, The Washington Post wrote: “No present competitor has been able to share in this veritable gold mine. That is, in part, because the Smoot company was first on the scene and it is the only company in the area which owns the expensive waterborne equipment necessary to dredge it.” (In 1961, Smoot was purchased by Pittsburgh-based Dravo Corp.)
Look at a geologic map of Washington and its environs, and you will see a lot of gravel.
“The Capitol is built on a hill of gravel,” Tony said.
We should be celebrating this seemingly modest product of nature. It began as mountains, survived baptism in the watery crucible of the Potomac, and now is the ultimate representation of our very nation: E pluribus unum. Out of many small pieces of rock, our capital is made strong.
I refuse to grovel, but I will say this: Long live gravel! And long live Gravelly Point.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.