By Frank Leone
As you take the on-ramp to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge to Arlington, you may notice what appears to be a round stone well to your left. Should you peer through peep holes in the iron cover, you will see a rock. But not just any rock – it is what remains of Braddock’s Rock, where (it is claimed) General Edward Braddock – accompanied by George Washington - landed with his British Expeditionary Force to set off to fight the French and Indian War in 1755. The site, also known as “The Key of all Keys,” was an important natural marker in the original survey of the City of Washington as well as a boundary marker for laying out the town of Funkstown.
The Rock is now at the bottom of a 16 foot well because much of it was quarried and transported to build the foundations of the U.S. Capitol in 1794. Then much of the remainder of the Rock was blasted away to facilitate the construction of the C&O Canal in 1832. Reclamation of the Potomac River flats has resulted in the much reduced in size Rock’s current location – no longer on the river banks.
The site is marked by a dented metal plaque, erected by the D.C. Bridge Construction personnel who constructed Theodore Roosevelt Bridge in 1964. The Bridge is undergoing long-needed rehabilitation, but the plans do not appear to impact the Braddock Rock site.
In earlier times, the Rock, an outcropping of granite Piedmont Stone, jutted into the Potomac River at Tiber Creek. Tradition holds that General Braddock sailed from Alexandria, Virginia on the ships Sea Horse and Nightingale. He landed on the Rock on April 14, 1755, and possibly camped nearby. Braddock led his Army northwest to fight the French and their Indian allies (the conflict was part of the England vs. France Seven Years War). Braddock was accompanied by 23 year old George Washington, a Lt. Colonel in the Virginia Militia, who became his aide-de-camp. On July 9, 1755, the general and more than 400 of his men were killed and 385 wounded in an ambush near the French Fort Duquesne, in present-day Pittsburgh. (Washington was not injured, although he had four bullet holes through his hat and uniform.)
The claim that Braddock actually landed on his eponymous Rock has long been controversial. Some historians find insufficient documentary evidence supporting the claim and contemporary records point to a more probable landing at the site where Rock Creek flows into the Potomac River. Rock Creek was much broader at that time and it emptied into the Potomac north of the Rock. They argue that Braddock would not have wanted to start his long march by crossing another water body. Pro-Braddock historians argue that there may not have been suitable landing spots north of Rock Creek and may have been bridges over the Creek.
Even if Braddock landed on the Rock, it was unlikely that Washington accompanied him, because Washington did not join the Braddock expedition until it reached western Maryland. Washington, however, likely landed at the Rock while he was surveying the Potomac River for Lord Fairfax (before his military career).
In 1632, the Rock was first designated as the “Key of all Keys” or the “Quay of all Quays,” meaning that it was the best landing place to disembark from a boat. The Rock also served as the southwest boundary of Hamburg (Funkstown), which developer Jacob Funk laid out in 1765.
One can see what’s left of The Rock at the foot of Observatory Hill (across 23rd St. from the State Department). That federal reservation was also known as Camp Hill – perhaps because Braddock’s troops camped there, but more likely because it was a military encampment during the War of 1812. Now the U.S. Institute for Peace occupies the foot of the hill – immediately across from Braddock’s Rock. But that’s another story.
Sources: “Rarest of Landmarks,” The Washington Morning Times, April 30, 1896; Hugh T. Taggart, “Key of All Keys,” Washington Star, May 16, 1896; Marcus Benjamin, “Braddock’s Rock: A Study in Local History,” Paper presented to the National Society of Colonial Dames, April 12, 1899; Alan Browne, “Braddock’s Rock – The Key of Keys” Landmarks, Feb. 11, 2011; John Kelly, “Braddock’s Rock: Launching point for a military expedition, or a mere legend?” Washington Post, Feb. 15, 2014; Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, Penguin Books: 2010; FBA History Project.