A trip down the Potomac to visit George Washington's country estate and tomb
04.06.2013 26 °C
When I said I wanted to visit Washington DC for a few days lots of people recommended that if I should try and do an excursion out to George Washington's country estate and tomb at Mount Vernon while I was there. It sounded a great idea so I began my second day in Washington with a 90 minute boat trip down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.
On the east bank we soon sailed past the hangars of the Anacostia Naval Air Station - home of "Marine One", the call-sign of the Marine Corps helicopters that ferry the US President to and from the South Lawn of the White House. Meanwhile overhead domestic passenger jets were flying over us to land at Ronald Reagan National Airport on the opposite shore of the river (international flights use Dulles Airport 20 miles further out of town).
It was a relaxing cruise down the Potomac during which we past the Cherry Blossom, a recreation of a 19th century Victorian Paddle Steamer moored up on the Alexandria Old Town waterfront. We also sailed under the "bascule" (i.e. opening or drawbridge) span of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge carrying the south eastern section of the Capitol Beltway, the interstate freeway that rings Washington.
The final landmark we passed was Fort Washington on a promontory on the east bank; originally built in 1809 it was the only defensive fort protecting the city although it was abandoned to the British during the War of 1812 without a shot being fired. Mount Vernon itself then came into view picturesquely sat on a small hill on the west bank and our boat headed for the shore and tied up at its wharf.
On the 20 minute walk up to the Mansion through the woods we stopped at Washington's Tomb. George Washington was the first US President 1789-1793 and when he died in 1799 the original plan had been for him to eventually lay to rest in the crypt under the dome of the Capitol Building. However his preference had always been to be buried in a new family vault at Mount Vernon replacing the existing deteriorating structure and this is what eventually happened in 1837 when his remains were placed in his current marble sarcophagus beside 23 other members of his family.
The Washington's were slave owners and close to his tomb there is the slave burial ground where 50-70 slaves are buried in unmarked graves and now have their own large memorial.
George and Martha Washington moved to Mount Vernon when they got married in 1757. George's father built the original simple farmhouse in 1735 but George then extended it over the five decades he lived at Mount Vernon into the three story 21 room mansion we see today.
Entry was by timed ticket through the one and half story Servants' Hall that flanks the front left of the Mansion and is mirrored on the right by a similarly shaped building housing the Kitchen. Photography wasn't allowed inside the house which felt grand but simple with bits added over time giving it character. George Washington died of a severe throat infection in the rather simple looking main bedchamber in December 1799.
George Washington laid out his estate so the outbuildings were spread along the lanes leading to the left (north) and right (south) from the Mansion. To the south was the coach house, stables, laundry, smokehouse and various store rooms.
The operation of the farm for the Washington's was run by their overseer whose accommodation and office is on the North Lane which also included a spinning room, blacksmith shop and yet more storerooms.
The head gardener also had his own house and we were also to see inside a 'necessary', which was the polite term for the outside privy. It had 3 seats so going to the toilet could obviously be a communal activity!
Mount Vernon has a couple of walled gardens. The Lower Garden containing vegetables for the Kitchen is on the south side of the Mansion while the showcase Upper Garden with its Greenhouse was used for fruit and nuts. Next to the Greenhouse were the Women's Slave Quarters; the Washington's had 317 slaves and about a quarter of them lived here while the rest lived down on the farm. George Washington had growing misgivings about slavery during his life and emancipated all of them in his will.
Rather than arriving at the Wharf, the more usual way to arrive at Mount Vernon is through the rather impressive Museum and Education Center. The Museum itself contained various artifacts from his life however a lot more interesting to me was the Education Center which contained various displays explaining his life including several wax models recreating what he would have looked like at key events during his life.
Despite being a General and the first President of the USA George Washington primarily considered himself a farmer and this reflected in the 4 acre Pioneer Farm (he actually cultivated more than 3,000 acres) located by the Wharf on the Potomac River. I was interested in the explanation for the different types of fencing used around the farm; tightly woven wattle fencing to protect poultry and small animals, post and rail fences to permanently mark boundaries and most interestingly zig-zagging split rail fencing around fields of crops (their main advantageous was they could be easily laid around trees and other obstacles).
Pride of place at the Pioneer Farm is a reconstruction of the 16 Sided Barn that Washington designed for treading wheat; the way it worked was that the wheat was laid out around the first floor and horses walked over it loosening the grain out of the straw so it fell through the floor to be picked up below making threshing the wheat a lot easier. Also on the Pioneer Farm is a reconstruction of a Slave Cabin which is more typical of how the majority of slaves lived.
The hooter of our boat moored on the Wharf then sounded recalling us to take us back to Washington. The current wharf was built in 1880 and restored in 1991 but the Washington's also had a Wharf and a thriving fishing business - in 1772 his fisheries reaped 1.3 million herring and more than 11,000 shad used to help feed the plantation as well as being an important source of income.