If you head across the entrance ramp to the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge,
going along US 50 across to Virginia, if you look out the driver’s side window you can see an unassuming circular rock structure. It looks like it might just be nothing more than a sewer cover, but the little plaque in front of it suggests otherwise.
For a few years now, I have wondered what the heck this thing is. I thought it might be some sort of historic site, but not one I had ever heard of, and not one I was able to find any information on. But I drive by this area a lot, and pretty much every time it I saw it, it bugged me that I didn’t know what it was.
I did try Googling variations of, “round stone historical marker on US 50 just before Roosevelt Bridge,” but to no avail. A few times, while out playing softball near Lincoln, I have considered slipping away from the game to get a closer look. The rock is in an awkward spot, though, with no foot paths and a busy road with no crosswalks in the way, and I never got around to it.
I was wondering about the rock again today, for no particular reason, and thought I would try to look it up on Google Earth. I hit pay dirt. Someone had taken a photo of the monument, labeled it, and linked it up to the spot on Google Earth where its located. Turns out, this is the marker for Braddock’s Rock, a memorial that pre-dates even the existence of the United States. An excellent compilation on the history of Braddock’s Rock can be found here, in the 1899 edition of The American Monthly Magazine.
Braddock’s Rock got its name in commemoration of the landing of General Edward Braddock, at the beginning of his march to Fort Duquesne in 1755. [Spoiler Alert: It didn't go well for him.] According to legend, anyway, the fleet carrying Braddock’s army — which included a young soldier named George Washington — tied up on the rock when it set up camp alongside the shore of the Potomac, while on its way to the Battle of the Monongahela.
No, Braddock’s boat was not tied up to the round stone outcropping depicted here. Rather, Braddock’s Rock is located some 16 feet below, down at the bottom of the well and usually under a few inches of water. In 1755, however, this now submerged rock was in fact a notable outcropping, and “[t]he water, at the time of Braddock’s ill-fated expedition, was so deep that his vessels landed the troops at what was known as the ‘Big Rock,’ at the foot of ‘Observatory Hill.” As one account of Braddock’s Rock has it,
Alexandria, then a colonial village, eight miles down the Virginia side of the Potomac, was the recruiting point of Braddock’s Army… [As the fleet headed up the river,] Braddock himself, with his own personal retinue, got separated from the remainder of his party and landed on this side of the river opposite Analostan Island [note: now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island], at what is now the foot of Twenty-fourth Street, Northwest, then a stretch of woods. Braddock’s vessel was drawn close up to shore and moored to a big boulder protruding from the bank[.]
And another account:
Braddock’s Rock is upon the site occupied by the British and provincial troops in April, 1755. The British troops landed here from their transports, the ‘Sea Horse’ and the ‘Nightingale,’ and here pitched their tents on April 14, 1755. It is a matter of tradition that Washington, then an officer of Virginia colonial troops, and later aide-de-camp to Braddock, was camped also on this very hill, and was so impressed with the beauty of the site and of the surrounding country that he was subsequently led to choose it for the location of the National Capital. This is the very spot which he, in 1796, designated as the location for the University of the United States.
Braddock’s rock has been known by this name ever since the time of Braddock’s departure, and is still so known by old inhabitants of the vicinity, among whom are several who remember when it was touched by the waters of the Potomac, since diverted farther southward[.]
Although there is some debate about how much truth there is to the legends of Braddock’s mooring, the rock predates the failed Braddock Expedition, and has been mentioned in historical writings from as early as 1632. Early accounts of the area described it “as a large rock lying at and in the river Potomack,” and it was commonly labeled on maps as the “Key of All Keys.” The promontory was also used as a starting point for surveys establishing property lines for early settlers along that stretch of the Potomac.
The construction of Washington, D.C. marked the beginning of the end of Braddock’s Rock. The stone outcropping was a convenient source of rock for building the Capital, and in the early 1800’s it was blasted away:
It is said to have furnished stone for the foundations of both the White House and the Capitol. Later, stone from Braddock’s Rock was used in the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. About 1832, when the canal was extended below Georgetown to connect with the Washington City Canal, nearly all that was left of the original outcrop of Braddock’s Rock was blasted away. The riverside swamps have long since been filled and the land raised above the level of the original surface. All that remains of Braddock’s Rock can still be seen enclosed in a circular granite-lined well south of the grounds of the old Naval Hospital, amidst the approach ramps to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.
What little remained of Braddock’s Rock was left standing when the Roosevelt Bridge was constructed. Although very few people will ever see it, a marker now sits next to it, giving a brief account of submerged rock’s historical significance:
The Braddock’s Rock plaque is wrong, though. Braddock’s expedition wasn’t ambushed, they just got the snot kicked out of them. Braddock died four days after the battle, and only 456 of the British troops were killed. (Also, I know I’m being nitpicky, but saying “his men” were killed is also misleading. About 50 women marched with the expedition, too, and over 90% of them did not make it back alive.)