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Watershed Human History- Fifteenmile Creek

Town Creek Aqueduct
Fifteenmile Creek aqueduct, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (mile 141) near Little Orleans, Maryland. The 110-foot single-arch structure has survived in relatively good condition. The structure was completed in 1848 to 1850.

Humans have played an important role in Fifteenmile Creek for many millennia; the native Americans who arrived in Maryland after the end of the last Ice Age surely found a forest that looked very different from the present one.  Some of the earliest European settlers who explored the Potomac River and its tributaries included a surveyor by the name of Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father) who in 1751 was one of the first persons to put Fifteenmile Creek on a map.  George Washington was even more familiar with Fifteenmile Creek through his many journeys through the region as a surveyor, military officer, landowner, and later as President of the United States.  Historically, Fifteenmile Creek owes its name to the fact that its confluence with the Potomac River is located 15 miles east of Oldtown, Maryland—the site of Colonel Thomas Cresap’s early settlement and trading post. 

The first true wagon road into western Maryland—Oldtown Road, constructed in 1758 from Fort Frederick to Fort Cumberland—closely followed the watershed’s southeastern divide.  Along this road is famous Point Lookout, used by Union troops during the Civil War to observe Confederate troops intent on destroying the bridges, aqueducts, and railroad tracks along the Potomac River.  Visitors to Point Lookout today can enjoy the same view that the Union troops had 150 years ago. From the overlook, one can still see the 243 acres of land across the river in West Virginia that were once owned by George Washington.  In the early 1800’s, the “Bank Road” connecting Hancock and Cumberland, Maryland was built as a turnpike to greatly speed east-west travel; today, that road is Route 144 (or Scenic Route 144).  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Fifteenmile Creek watershed was valued primarily for its timber resources and for unknown mineral resources (e.g., coal, iron ore) that the land might hold.  William Carroll, grandson of Daniel Carroll—one of America’s Founding Fathers—was an early investor in western Maryland who sought to take advantage of opportunities provided by construction of a canal (the “C&O”) connecting Georgetown and Cumberland, Maryland or possibly by one of the nation’s first railroad lines (the “B&O”) that would eventually connect Baltimore and Cumberland. 

William Carroll’s ventures in the watershed ended in personal failure and he was forced to leave his Town Hill Estate in 1843—60 years old and bankrupt.  Eventually, the same land that Carroll had invested in provided enough sawtimber to sustain several generations of “Timber Barons” operating in the watershed.  In the late 1800’s, Frederick Mertens—a Cumberland businessman—was involved in house and canal boat construction that required large quantities of lumber.  Mertens’ demand for sawtimber was so great that he constructed a narrow gauge railroad from one of his sawmills at Darkey’s Lock into the Big Run and Deep Run watersheds.  Mertens used two locomotives purchased from the Mount Savage Locomotive Works in Frostburg, Maryland to move his freight. By 1896, the Green Ridge Railroad was 26 miles in length and had a passenger car for its owners and for paying customers.  The rail bed of much of the former Green Ridge Railroad is now occupied by the Green Ridge Hiking Trail. 

By the end of the 19th century, the devastation inflicted by the “Timber Barons” on the watershed was nearly complete.  Depleted of its valuable sawtimber, the land was virtually worthless—considered wasteland and simply left to the ravages of water and fire.  Yet the Fifteenmile Creek watershed would sustain yet another grandiose venture at the hands of Fred Mertens’ sons:  creation of the “largest apple orchard in the universe”.   Before going bankrupt in 1918, the Mertens brothers and their Green Ridge Valley Orchard Company would subdivide their massive landholdings in the watershed and amass a proverbial fortune—nearly $3 million—by selling 10-acre parcels in their cooperative orchard venture for $150 to $250 an acre.  Planting, growing, and maintaining a productive apple orchard in this harsh dry climate turned out to be far less profitable than the Mertenses had ever imagined.

The most recent chapter in the human history of the watershed began with establishment of Green Ridge State Forest under the direction of Maryland’s first state forester, Fred W. Besley, in 1931.  Some of the earliest work performed in the new state forest by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) not only helped to establish new forests, perpetuate existing forests, prevent soil erosion, and fight forest fires, but the experience instilled confidence in a group of young men shaken by unemployment and other hardships of the Great Depression.  
The Fifteenmile Creek watershed is truly a place of national significance; it includes many landmarks of cultural significance such as:  the Mason Dixon Line (the most famous boundary line in the nation); the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park; the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.