The Northwest Branch is the largest sub-watershed of the Anacostia River. The majority of the watershed is located in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Maryland. It stretches over 19 miles from the headwaters in Sandy Spring, MD to Bladensburg, MD, where it joins the Northeast Branch to form the Anacostia River. The watershed in Montgomery County includes portions of the communities of Norwood, Bel Pre Manor, Colesville, Layhill, Glenmont, Wheaton, Hillandale, White Oak, Silver Spring, Kemp Mill, Four Corners and Takoma Park. The Prince George's County portion of the watershed includes Langley Park, University Park, Chillum, Hyattsville, Avondale and Brentwood. The total watershed area, including a small portion of land in NE Washington, D.C., is 53.5 sq. mi. (139 sq. km.), with a resident population of about 254,000.
Wondering whether you live within this watershed?
The boundaries of the Northwest Branch subwatershed are generally outlined by Olney-Sandy Spring Road to the north, New Hampshire Avenue and Adelphi Road to the east, University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue to the west, and the southern edge of Hyattsville to the south. Seventy-four percent of the subwatershed is in Montgomery County, 18% is in Prince George's County, and 8% is in the District of Columbia. And if you live in the Sligo Creek subwatershed, you are in the greater Northwest Branch one as well.
What is the condition of the Northwest Branch?
Unfortunately, the Northwest Branch has been in decline for many years. First the forests were cleared for agriculture, resulting in huge amounts of muddy runoff. Then the watershed was developed, in many cases with no stormwater controls. The lower stretch was straightened and channelized. The upper portions of the Northwest Branch still support some of the healthiest fish and water insect populations in the entire Anacostia watershed, and the streamvalley has many remarkable and beautiful stretches.
Take a look below at some of the beautiful reasons we have dedicated ourselves to restoring this stream. See also the challenges it faces: gushing stormwater, invasive non-native plants, and litter. As a special treat, scroll way down for an historical perspective. Then resolve to join us in restoring this urban treasure to health!
Pileated Woodpecker. Photo Don Olson
Rushing water took out the bank and some of the trail, requiring major work to prevent the sewer trunk line from being exposed.
Wineberry spreads at both ends, and is thorny..
If you will travel along the Washington, Colesville, and Ashton road which up to two years ago was a toll pike, but is now a country road, you will come three miles north and east of Sligo [today's Silver Spring] to one of the romantic spots of the region around Washington. The place is Burnt Mills. A few yards beyond the Sligo tollgate you will take the right fork of the road, for the left fork would lead you over the Union turnpike to Wheaton, Norbeck, Oakdale, Olney and Brookeville. The right fork will carry you through highly tilled upland country, occupied in a number of places by notable villas, over the green vale through which Sligo branch flows, up again to a wide stretch of high, rolling country vividly green at this season with rich pastures and undulating fields of heading wheat, past a cross-roads appropriately called Four Corners, and then down grade for a mile, more than half the way being through a ravine shaded and gratefully cool in summer, which is locally called Sleepy Hollow and which drops down into the valley of Northwest branch.
At the point on this branch where Burnt Mills stands the land is a big bowl-like formation. It is sometimes described by poetic persons as an amphitheater. Hills rise high above this depression. On the southerly side of the stream a heavily wooded hill rises steeply. The other hills are cleared and are under tillage. Big boulders and outcroppings of Carolina gneiss show that this basin was scooped out at the base of the surrounding hill at some remote time. A trace of the original county road which ran through this section before the building of Colesville and Ashton pike may be seen near the mill.
The main work of man in the landscape is the old mill, with a modern addition and its cement flume which displaced the ditched mill race. The shingle roof of the mill is green, dark and old, with moss, but nearly everything else about the mill - the miller, of course, included - is whitened by the flour and meal ground there, and which has been grinding there so long that no man's memory runneth to the contrary. Near the mill is the miller's house, bowered in the shade of numerous close-growing trees and the home of Dr. William T. Brown, surrounded by shrubbery, orchard and vineyard. Then there is a general store, one of those interesting little roadside department stores where a great medley of wares clutter the shelves, the counter and floor and hang from the rafters.
Northwest branch has been dammed for the supply of the mill by a concrete dam 180 feet long, seventeen feet high, seven feet thick at the base and two at the top. A long flume carries the water around two sides of an open space in front of the mill to the turbines, for a number of years ago the waterwheel was superseded by the turbine. In the middle of the open space before the mill, or the mill plaza, are two ancient burrs formerly used in the mill. The miller told the Rambler they were French burrs, that they were of some very hard, volcanic rock quarried in France, and which formed the millstones of most of the olden water mills in this country. Out of these burrs rises a weather-seasoned cedar post, and on top of this is the skeleton of a lantern in which it would seem that no light has burned for a long time.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission water filtration facility built at Burnt Mills between 1929 and 1934 was the water supply workhorse for Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, providing the region's principal source of pure water until the 1950's. The distinctive Georgian Revival style buildings that flank Colesville Road housed the pumping machinery for the plant. Although the water filtration structures and machinery have been removed, the plant retains its architectural and historical importance as an outstanding public works project in this period.
From the White Oak Master Plan, 1997
The area of the two buildings are included in the county's park system, and provides parking and access to the trails, both north and south along the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.
Northwest Branch bears a name which may describe the direction from which it flows but gives no hint of the features which render it remarkable in the eyes of men who have explored it. Even its name is vague, because, while it may be northwest from one point of view, it is northeast, southwest or southeast from other points of view. Its geographical designation does not mean much. So far as the Rambler knows, there is no Northeast branch, and if its name is intended to show its relation to the Eastern branch, into which it flows, it might, with a nearer approach to accuracy, be called Western branch. Of course it does not flow northwest, but flows south and a little east of south. If the direction of its flow was meant to be described by a name it should have been called South branch.
To the west of Northwest branch is a branch which flows very nearly due south, and its name is North branch. But that branch has nothing to do with Northwest branch because it flows into Rock creek, paralleling that creek for about seven miles and joining it near the hamlet of Avery, two and a half miles northeast of Rockville. West of Northwest branch is one called Long branch, which is really a short branch, being not more than three miles long, while the branch into which it empties, Sligo, is something over eight miles long, beginning on the south slope of the high land around Wheaton and uniting with Northwest branch about two miles west of Hyattsville. In relation to its neighbor streams Northwest branch might properly have been called Big branch, but the idea seems not to have occurred to those early settlers in that part of Maryland which in 1776, the Maryland convention decreed should be Montgomery county.
However, one should not quarrel about names any more than about tastes, and if the name of a branch does not fit it, it is stupid to write a half column of criticism of the branch. Northwest branch had nothing to do with the selection of its name, and so far as history records, the Rambler is the first person to make any objection to it. Northwest branch may be northwest of Bladensburg and Hyattsville, but it is northeast of Washington. It is west of Riggs mill, Aveney (Avenel?), White Oak, Colesville and Norwood and it is east of Oakdale, Norbeck, Layhille, Glenmont, Wheaton and Takoma, so what's the use of making any protest. Northwest branch is too busy to listen to protest and flows on as though perfectly content with its name.
But it does seem to the Rambler that as many of the Montgomery and Prince Georges county branches have reasonably descriptive names - as, for example, Paint branch, Rock creek, Piney branch, Mill creek, Rock run, Cabin branch, Wildcat creek, Ten Mile creek, Broad branch, Horsepen branch, Muddy branch, Indian creek, Beaverdam branch and Oxon run - the gentle man who christened one of the wonderfully scenic and romantic creeks, Northwest branch might have made a better job of it. He might have called it Laurel Thicket run, Boulder creek, Gorge run, Chasm creek, Swimming Hole branch or Roaring brook. At Great Falls is a tract of land granted by the state of Maryland in 1807 to Alexander Adams and William Lodge which then bore the significant name of "Hard to Come At," and since 1838 has borne the name of "Resurvey of Hard to Come At." It is a curious and unusual name for a tract of land, but those who named it were acquainted with the property. If they had been called upon to pick a name for Northwest branch they would probably have called it "Hard to Get Along creek." The people who gave that beautiful Virginia creek near Great Falls the name of "Difficult run" would probably have named Northwest branch "Worse Than Difficult run."
Northwest branch rises in that civil subdivision of Montgomery county called Olney, or election district No. 8. One head of the branch rises about a mile south of Sandy Spring, one rises west of the road from Ednor to Ashton, and two or three rise in a rough triangular bit of country, only ten miles north of the northern point of the District, is the watershed which turns some streams toward the Potomac and the Eastern branch and others toward the Patuxent.
The region of the origin of the branch is described by geologists as derived from "light granitoid rocks often with mica in parallel folio," and the Maryland geological survey classifies the soils as "loam, slightly sandy; good farm lands, wheat, hay, corn and oats." Close to where the stream crosses from Montgomery county into Prince Georges it runs into the Patuxent group of the Mesozoic and tertiary, where interbeded sands and clays extend to a depth of 350 feet, and of the soil the Maryland geological survey says: "Clays and sandy clays; rather poor soil for general crops." "Soil is as soil does," and much of the soil in that part of Prince Georges has by skillful tillage been brought to a high degree of fertility. Through much of this country, especially in the Montgomery county section, Northwest branch has scoured down through soil of the weathered rocks deep into the basin rock, or the "light granitoid rock often with mica in paralleled folia." It is because of this deep cutting that Northwest branch presents such allurements for a hard walk.
The Rambler did not follow the branch from its mouth to its source, because that would entail too much work for a pleasant Sunday walk, but he entered the valley of the creek at Burnt Mills, where the Colesville pike from Sligo to Colesville crosses the branch. The Rambler has often walked along that road, past beautiful Alton farm, and has written lengthy accounts of such interesting places along the way as Indian Spring farm, Four Corners, Burnt Mills, White Oak and Pleasant View. All those places are still there and have undergone little change since the Rambler jotted down all the information he could gather concerning them.
Burnt Mills is not what its name signifies, but takes the name from the fact that a mill which stood near it was probably destroyed by fire. Several years ago the Rambler was told by Ezra Troth, the miller, that he, Troth, had sought to trace the reason for the name "Burnt Mills." He said he had asked the question of a very old colored man who had lived in the neighborhood all his life. The colored man said that his father had lived in that neighborhood all his life and that he had died at a good old age, but he had heard him say that he could not remember that a mill ever burned at that place. The Rambler was told, however, that a search among the alders and elders by the side of the stream about six hundred yards above the present mill would reveal traces of an ancient mill foundation and signs of a long abandoned mill race. At the time when the Rambler sought to get at the reason for the name "Burnt Mills" he obtained the following statement form Samuel D. Waters, at one time part owner of the mill property:
"When I moved to Burnt Mills in 1878 I talked with an old resident, Louis Patten, then ninety years old. The date of his birth would carry us back to 1788. He told me that the mill had not been burned in his lifetime, but that the story had been handed down to him as a boy that a mill which stood above the site of the present mill had been burned. He had never heard the date of the destruction of the mill, but he thought it had occurred a half or three-quarters of a century before his birth. As far back as my records go, Burnt Mills was the property of Richard Israel, and after him his son-in-law, James L. Bond, later became the owner. Bond was succeeded in the ownership of the mill property in the seventies by his sons-in-law, Samuel D. Waters and William E. Manakee, doing business under the firm name of Waters & Manakee. The mill then became the property of Dr. George W. Bready."
The Rambler has a theory, because of the finding of an old copper stencil in the present mill, the mill which has been forgotten was called Glen Cairn mill, but this is merely a theory, useful to think about in the absence of any facts concerning that mill which vanished so long ago, that but for the present name "Burnt Mills" nobody would suspect that it had existed. ...
Burnt Mills, Montgomery county, is seated in a deep basin with high hills all around it. The level of the high surrounding country is from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet above the stream. That does not strike one as an imposing altitude, but, looking from the hills down into the basin and the gorge which the stream has torn for itself through the hills, the depth is very impressive.
The bottom of this bowl is far beneath solid masses of those familiar rocks called the gneisses - Carolina gneiss, granite-gneiss, etc. In the Washington folio of the Geologic Atlas of the United States, embracing the District of Columbia and adjacent parts of Maryland and Virginia, issued by the geological survey, there is this interesting paragraph concerning the rocks of the neighborhood:
"The rocks themselves thus yield records of widely separate epochs from the earliest age of geologic history to the present. The entire record may be summarized as follows: From the earliest formation to the latest. Earliest of all was the production of the great bodies of Carolina gneiss. Its origin, whether igneous or sedimentary, is buried in obscurity. It represents a complex development and many processes of change, in the course of which all original characters have been obliterated. The gneiss is, however, distinct from and much older than any other formation yet identified on the Piedmont plateau, and the time of its production is the earliest of which we have record.
During succeeding epochs masses of igneous rock were forced into the gneiss. The lapse of time was great, the nature of the igneous rocks changed repeatedly, and later intrusive masses were forced into the earlier. The granitic texture of some of the formations and the lamination and schistosity of others were produced at great depths below the surface. Upon these once deep-seated rocks now rest lavas which poured forth upon the surface in pre-Cambrian time. Thus there are in contact two extremes of igneous rock - those which consolidated at considerable depth and those which cooled at the surface. The more ancient crystalline complex had therefore undergone uplift and long-continued erosion before the period of volcanic activity began. The complex may be safely referred to the Archean period. Whether these ancient lavas represent a late portion of the Archean or are of the Algonkian age is not certain. The latter, however, is more probable."
The rocks of the Washington district are divisible, say the geologist, into two classes, the ancient and highly crystalline rocks and the unconsolidated formations of the coastal plain. The former generally occur northwest and southwest of Washington, and the latter lie to the east and south. Among the crystalline rocks are gneiss, schist, granite, diorite, gabbro, peridotite and rocks derived from these by metamorphic action such as granite-gneiss, diorite-gneiss, serpentine and soapstone. The unconsolidated formations are the gravels, sands, loams, maris and clays. It is curious to behold how deep this basin of Burnt Mills has been scoured below the old rocks and then given a covering of the soil derived from decomposed rocks and brought down by rain and wind from the top of the surrounding high land. ...
The "mountain laurel," which grows generally in the woods near Washington and so luxuriantly along Northwest branch, is the evergreen much used by fruiterers and other merchants in edibles as and aid in window dressing. The leaves are dark glossy green, pointed at each end and oblong in form. Botanists often dwell on the curious construction of the flower and thus describe it: "The corolla is deep saucer of bowl shaped, with five short, broad lobes. On the outside and around the lower edge of the bowl are ten small humps that inside the corolla form little pockets to receive the anthers of the slender white stamens, curving from the center of the blossom like the spokes of a wheel."
The flowers are white, shading into cream and pink, and the flower stems are sticky, so that only winged insects can get the nectar secreted at the base of the greenish pistil. Moths and bees are especially fond of this nectar. Great masses of these flowers bloom along the wooded slopes of Rock creek and Broad branch. Thousands of persons gather the blossoms because of their spectacular effect in masses, but not one person in a thousand will minutely examine one of the small flowers, though such examination would be interesting. The botanical name of the shrub is kalmia, and one of the District streets leaking west from Georgia avenue close to the District boundary bears that name. The laurel has held a high place with various peoples of the ancient world. It was as important in some ways as the olive. There were divine properties in it. Lightning could not strike it, and it is related that the Emperor Tiberius used to put on a laurel crown during an electric storm. It gave protection in other ways, and the Greeks used to hang a few of the leaves on the doors of their houses, and laurel was hung upon the gates of the Caesars as a guard against enemies, though it is not recorded that the armed sentries were withdrawn because the laurel was on post. Something of the future could be read with the aid of laurel, for if the leaves could be heard to crack in the sacred flame the future was bright, but if they made no crackling sound one's worst fears might be realized. It is written of the true laurel, which is native to the Caucasus, northern Peris, northwestern Asia Minor and the Crimea, that its leaves contain so much prussic acid that when bruised or crushed a vapor strong enough to kill insects arises from them. It has the odor and taste of bitter almonds, and a weak solution made from the leaves has been used for centuries as a flavoring material for food. Oil of bitter almonds may be distilled from the leaves of the true laurel.
You will at length pass out of the region of rocks and laurel and come to where the stream flows gently over a sandy bed with earth banks along its sides and rather open woods along the way. These woods are marked by numerous old but little traveled roads. About two miles down stream from the mill, and where the stream flows quietly, a concrete dam has been built across it, so that when the sluice gates are closed the branch for a long distance may be converted into a lake....
The stroll which the Rambler took last Sunday, and which he has tried to tell of here, is recommended to all persons in need of exercise.