You might know the Watergate as the famous hotel that Richard Nixon’s henchmen broke into, and maybe you think of it anytime journalists default to adding “-gate” to a word associated with whatever modern day scandal they’re reporting on. But they all get their name from a real Water Gate, an actual structure to hold back water. It’s still here on the Georgetown Waterfront for anyone to see.
The tide lock with Water Gate ruins and the Watergate development in the background. Images by the author.
Built in the 1830s as an integral part of the C & O Canal, the Water Gate was a reinforced wooden dam at the mouth of Rock Creek that filled a basin with water so that the adjacent Tide Lock could be used to raise canal boats from the Potomac River into Rock Creek, and up to Lock 1 for their trip in the canal.
The basin’s water level was maintained with a spillway at the top of the Water Gate, allowing excess flow into the Potomac River, while always maintaining a large amount of water to operate the Tide Lock so boats could navigate into Rock Creek Basin and up to Lock 1.
The canal quickly became obsolete in the early 20th century, no longer commercially viable due to competition from railroads and a growing roadway network. Commercial operations stopped in 1924. Without the revenue to make repairs, the canal and Water Gate slipped into disrepair over the next 30 years.
In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a walk along the entire 184.5 mile canal, calling to preserve it in response to the Washington Post supporting a plan to fill-in the canal and turn it into an automobile parkway— Douglas was the most notable local advocate, though many other local advocates were involved in this effort. The preservation efforts came to full fruition in 1971, when the C & O Canal and adjacent lands were designated as a national park.
The physical work to maintain the canal is an ongoing effort. Though the Water Gate itself is now an industrial ruin, NPS and Georgetown Heritage recently announced the funding for reconstruction of Locks 3 and 4, and a planning effort and conditions assessment for other canal structures in Georgetown will commence later this year.
So the next time you see a scandal with “gate” lazily stapled to it, remember that it comes from a real place with its own very interesting history.