Three Sisters (District of Columbia)

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Three Sisters
The Three Sisters islets, DC.jpg
The Three Sisters Islets
Location Potomac River, Washington, D.C.
Coordinates Coordinates: 38°54′14″N77°04′50″W / 38.9039°N 77.0806°W / 38.9039; -77.0806
Total islands3
United States

The Three Sisters are three rocky islands in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., west of the Key Bridge. A notable landmark in colonial times, the islets are less well known as the Three Sisters Islands [1] and Three Sisters Island. [2]

Island Any piece of sub-continental land that is surrounded by water

An island or isle is any piece of sub-continental land that is surrounded by water. Very small islands such as emergent land features on atolls can be called islets, skerries, cays or keys. An island in a river or a lake island may be called an eyot or ait, and a small island off the coast may be called a holm. A grouping of geographically or geologically related islands is called an archipelago, such as the Philippines.

Potomac River river in the mid-Atlantic United States

The Potomac River is located within the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States and flows from the Potomac Highlands into the Chesapeake Bay. The river is approximately 405 miles (652 km) long, with a drainage area of about 14,700 square miles (38,000 km2). In terms of area, this makes the Potomac River the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast of the United States and the 21st largest in the United States. Over 5 million people live within the Potomac watershed.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, first President of the United States and Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city is also one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.


Bridges have been proposed for the Three Sisters several times, most recently in the 1960s, when the Three Sisters Bridge proposal led to a decade of protests and ultimately, its cancellation.

Geographical description

The Three Sisters are part of the Fall Line, a geologic feature which distinguishes the sedimentary coastal plain of the mid-Atlantic region of the United States from the basement rock of the inland. [3] Part of this basement rock, the Three Sisters are composed of granite. [4] Roughly 300,000 years ago, [5] Atlantic Ocean levels were much higher. At that time, the lower Potomac River was submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean, whose shores reached the Three Sisters. [6]

Atlantic Seaboard fall line escarpment in the Eastern United States

The Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, or Fall Zone, is a 900-mile (1,400 km) escarpment where the Piedmont and Atlantic coastal plain meet in the eastern United States. Much of the Atlantic Seaboard fall line passes through areas where no evidence of faulting is present.

Basement (geology) Metamorphic or igneous rocks below a sedimentary platform or cover

In geology, basement and crystalline basement are the rocks below a sedimentary platform or cover, or more generally any rock below sedimentary rocks or sedimentary basins that are metamorphic or igneous in origin. In the same way, the sediments or sedimentary rocks on top of the basement can be called a "cover" or "sedimentary cover".

Granite A common type of intrusive, felsic, igneous rock with granular structure

Granite is a common type of felsic intrusive igneous rock that is granular and phaneritic in texture. Granites can be predominantly white, pink, or gray in color, depending on their mineralogy. The word "granite" comes from the Latin granum, a grain, in reference to the coarse-grained structure of such a holocrystalline rock. Strictly speaking, granite is an igneous rock with between 20% and 60% quartz by volume, and at least 35% of the total feldspar consisting of alkali feldspar, although commonly the term "granite" is used to refer to a wider range of coarse-grained igneous rocks containing quartz and feldspar.

The Potomac River near Washington, D.C. averages between 10-20' deep -- except near shore or the 3 Sisters Islands. However, there is a deep channel near the Three Sisters which generally is about 80 feet (24 m) deep, but can drop to just 30 feet (9.1 m) or less during low tide or periods of little precipitation. [7] [8] The rock formation generates sand bars which are often visible at low tide. [9] No grass grows on the sandbars near 3 Sisters Islands -- which are fully submerged at high tide. The height of the sandbars wax and wane according to floods, spring silt runoff, and drought.

The (traditional) navigational high water mark is Georgetown -- which is why the town came to be. Georgetown (which preceded the establishment of Washington, DC) was the furthest point inland that shipping vessels coming up from the Atlantic Ocean, could reliably reach. The C&O canal was proposed as a means of navigating inland beyond Georgetown -- and past the obstructions of Little and Great Falls.

Legends and history

Various legends and historical oral tales are associated with the Three Sisters. Boaters will tell you of the story of the three nuns who drowned there where the three rocks are. This is also the deepest part of the river. One of the earliest stories involves three Algonquian sisters who crossed the river in an attempt to win the release of their brothers, who had been kidnapped by another tribe. They drowned while crossing the river, and were turned into the rocky islets. [10] [11] A less commonly cited legend says three daughters of the local Native American chief were marooned on the islands by their father after rejecting the husbands he picked out for them. [12] The legend holds that the sisters cursed the spot, saying that if they could not cross the Potomac there, no one could. A strange moaning or bell-like sound is said to come from the Potomac River when the curse is about to claim another life. [13]

Algonquian peoples ethnic group

The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups. Today, thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples. Historically, the peoples were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior along the Saint Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. This grouping consists of the peoples who speak Algonquian languages.

The first European to see the Three Sisters was Captain John Smith, who sailed up the Potomac River and saw them in 1607. [10] The islets were a landmark in colonial times, [3] and appeared on Pierre L'Enfant's first map of the area. [14]

John Smith (explorer) English soldier, explorer and writer

John Smith was an English soldier, explorer, colonial governor, Admiral of New England, and author. He played an important role in the establishment of the Jamestown colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America, in the early 17th century. Smith was a leader of the Virginia Colony based at Jamestown between September 1608 and August 1609, and led an exploration along the rivers of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, during which he became the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay area. Later, he explored and mapped the coast of New England. He was knighted for his services to Sigismund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania, and his friend Mózes Székely.

Three Sisters Bridge

External image
Searchtool.svg Three Sisters Bridge

A bridge across the Potomac River, using the Three Sisters as part of the supporting piers, was first proposed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1789. [14] A bridge was again proposed at the site in 1826, but the plan was defeated after supporters of Chain Bridge (then a toll bridge) opposed it. [15] A bridge was planned again in 1857, but debate over its exact location lasted for years. The onset of the American Civil War forced the cancellation of the plan. [16]

In 1929, the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway was renamed the George Washington Memorial Parkway by Congress, which authorized its extension to the Great Falls of the Potomac. [17] The idea for a large George Washington Memorial Parkway came from Representative Louis C. Cramton, who introduced legislation in January 1929 to construct a larger system of roads and parks. [18] In the Senate, the bill was amended by Carter Glass to include a bridge across the Potomac at the Great Falls of the Potomac. [19] Congress enacted the "Act of May 29, 1930" (46 Stat. 482) — more commonly known as the Capper-Cramton Act — to establish the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The act appropriated $13.5 million to acquire land and build a parkway on the Virginia shoreline from Mount Vernon to the Great Falls of the Potomac (excluding the city of Alexandria), and to build a parkway on the Maryland shoreline from Fort Washington, Maryland, to the Great Falls of the Potomac (excluding the District of Columbia). (This section is now known as the Clara Barton Parkway.) A bridge across the Potomac at or near the Great Falls was also included in the final bill. [20]

In 1957, Senator Clifford P. Case introduced legislation that would require the District of Columbia to build a bridge across the Three Sisters connecting D.C. and Virginia. In mid-1961, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation proposed constructing a six-lane, 160-foot-wide (49 m) bridge linking the Virginia and D.C. segments of the George Washington Memorial Parkway at the Three Sisters. [21] The bridge was designed to carry the unbuilt Interstate 266, part of the proposed Inner Loop system of beltway superhighways designed for the inner parts of the District of Columbia. Construction of the bridge would also have required that Congress fund construction of the proposed Potomac River Freeway. [22] [23] Over the next 11 years, there would be several lawsuits (most of which were won by opponents of the bridge) and numerous protests — including an attempt to occupy the Three Sisters.

In 1966, Representative William Natcher, chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for the District of Columbia of the House Committee on Appropriations, threatened to withhold money for the construction of the Washington Metro if the bridge were not built. Natcher was a strong advocate of highway construction, and used his subcommittee position to win support for public works projects in his home district; it was the House Public Works Committee which had first approved the bridge. A bitter eight-year political battle occurred, during which Natcher repeatedly deleted money for Metro from the federal budget. Repeatedly District of Columbia and United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) officials would agree to build the bridge, causing the Metro money to be restored, and then reasons for not building the bridge would be found. [24] Finally, in December 1971, Representative Robert Giaimo led a successful revolt on the House floor which restored the Metro funding over Natcher's vehement opposition. Without the threat of losing Metro money, D.C. and USDOT officials quietly deleted the bridge from their construction plans. The bridge project was declared dead by The Washington Post in May 1977. [25]

The islets are integral to the plot of Breena Clarke's best-selling novel River, Cross My Heart, set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in 1925. [26] A false legend about the landmark (that three nuns drowned at the Three Sisters, giving the rocks their name) is given in River, Cross My Heart, and also by David Baldacci in his novel The Camel Club . [27]

The islets also appear in Carolivia Herron's 1992 novel Thereafter, Johnnie, [28] and in Margaret Truman's 1995 murder-mystery novel Murder on the Potomac. [29]

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Arlington Memorial Bridge bridge connecting Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia

The Arlington Memorial Bridge is a Neoclassical masonry, steel, and stone arch bridge with a central bascule that crosses the Potomac River at Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. First proposed in 1886, the bridge went unbuilt for decades thanks to political quarrels over whether the bridge should be a memorial, and to whom or what. Traffic problems associated with the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in November 1921 and the desire to build a bridge in time for the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington led to its construction in 1932.

William Natcher Democratic congressman, serving in the United States House of Representatives from 1953 to 1994

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Interstate 495 (I-495) is a 64-mile (103 km) Interstate Highway that surrounds Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States of America, and its inner suburbs in adjacent Maryland and Virginia. I-495 is widely known as the Capital Beltway, or simply the Beltway, especially when the context of Washington, D.C., is clear. It is the basis of the phrase "inside the Beltway", used when referring to issues dealing with American government and politics. I-95 utilizes the southern and eastern half of the Capital Beltway to circumnavigate Washington, D.C., and is cosigned with I-495 along that portion.

Interstate 295 (I-295) in the U.S. state of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. is a 8.05-mile (12.96 km) spur route connecting I-95 / I-495 and Maryland Route 210 near the Potomac River to Interstate 695 & D.C. Route 295 in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway parkway in Washington D.C.

The Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, often known simply as the Rock Creek Parkway, is a parkway maintained by the National Park Service as part of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. It runs next to the Potomac River and Rock Creek in a generally north–south direction, carrying four lanes of traffic from the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Memorial Bridge north to a junction with Beach Drive near Connecticut Avenue at Calvert Street, N.W., just south of the National Zoological Park.

George Washington Memorial Parkway parkway in the Washington D.C. area

The George Washington Memorial Parkway, colloquially the G.W. Parkway, is a 25-mile-long (40 km) parkway that runs along the south bank of the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, Virginia, northwest to McLean, Virginia, and is maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). It is located almost entirely within Virginia, except for a short portion of the parkway northwest of the Arlington Memorial Bridge that passes over Columbia Island within the District of Columbia.

Theodore Roosevelt Bridge bridge in United States of America

The Theodore Roosevelt Bridge is a bridge crossing the Potomac River which connects Washington, D.C., with the Commonwealth of Virginia. The bridge crosses over Theodore Roosevelt Island, and carries Interstate 66/U.S. Route 50. The center lane in the bridge is reversible; the middle barrier is moved with a barrier transfer machine. The bridge is named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States.

Clara Barton Parkway parkway in the Washington D.C. area

Clara Barton Parkway is an automobile parkway in the U.S. state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. The highway runs 6.8 miles (10.9 km) from MacArthur Boulevard in Carderock, Maryland, east to Canal Road at the Chain Bridge in Washington. Clara Barton Parkway is a two- to four-lane parkway that parallels the Potomac River in southwestern Montgomery County, Maryland, and the far western corner of Washington. The parkway provides access to the communities of Cabin John and Glen Echo and several units of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The Maryland portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway was constructed from Carderock past Interstate 495 (I-495) to Glen Echo in the early to mid-1960s. The parkway was proposed to continue west to Great Falls and east to Georgetown. However, these proposals never came to fruition and the parkway was extended only to the Chain Bridge in the early 1970s. The Maryland portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway was renamed for Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, in 1989.

Columbia Island (District of Columbia)

Columbia Island is an island located in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in the United States. It formed naturally as an extension of Analostan Island in the latter part of the 1800s, and over time erosion and flooding severed it from Analostan. The U.S. federal government deposited material dredged from the Potomac River on the island between 1911 and 1922, and again from 1925 to 1927. The island was also reshaped by the government at this time. It received the name "Columbia Island" about 1918. In 1968, the island was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park. Located within the park are the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial, and the Columbia Island Marina. The island, park, memorials, and marina are part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and administered by the National Park Service.

Great Falls Park protected area

Great Falls Park is a small National Park Service (NPS) site in Virginia, United States. Situated on 800 acres (3.65 km2) along the banks of the Potomac River in northern Fairfax County, the park is a disconnected but integral part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The Great Falls of the Potomac River are near the northern boundary of the park, as are the remains of the Patowmack Canal, the first canal in the United States that used locks to raise and lower boats.

11th Street Bridges complex of three bridges across the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

The 11th Street Bridges are a complex of three bridges across the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., United States. The bridges convey Interstate 695 across the Anacostia to its southern terminus at Interstate 295 and DC 295. The bridges also connect the neighborhood of Anacostia with the rest of the city of Washington.

The Inner Loop was two planned freeways around downtown Washington, D.C. The innermost loop would have formed an oval centered on the White House, with a central freeway connecting the southern segment to the northern segment and then continuing on to Interstate 95. Interstate 95 would have met Interstate 66, Interstate 295, Interstate 695, and US 50 while traversing the Inner Loop. A second loop was an arc across the northern section of the city, beginning at East Capitol Street at the Anacostia River and using the Missouri Avenue NW and Nebraska Avenue NW commercial corridors to terminate in Georgetown.

Barney Circle Neighborhood in the United States

Barney Circle is a small residential neighborhood located on the west bank of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C., in the United States. The neighborhood's name refers to the traffic circle which exists at Pennsylvania Avenue SE just before it crosses the John Philip Sousa Bridge over the Anacostia. The Barney Circle traffic circle is named for Commodore Joshua Barney, commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla in the War of 1812.

McMillan Plan planning document for Washington, D.C.

The McMillan Plan is a comprehensive planning document for the development of the monumental core and the park system of Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. It was written in 1902 by the Senate Park Commission. The commission is popularly known as the McMillan Commission after its chairman, Senator James McMillan of Michigan.

U.S. Route 29 (US 29) in the District of Columbia is a U.S. highway which enters D.C. via Key Bridge from Arlington, Virginia, and exits at Silver Spring, Maryland. It predominantly follows city surface streets, although the portion of the route from Key Bridge east to 26th Street NW is an elevated highway. The elevated section of U.S. Route 29 in D.C. is better known as the Whitehurst Freeway. Called the city's most ridiculed bridge in 1989, there have been several attempts to have the Whitehurst Freeway torn down but cost and other considerations have stopped these proposals from being acted on.

Three Sisters Bridge

The Three Sisters Bridge was a planned bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., with piers on the Three Sisters islets. Envisioned in the 1950s and formally proposed in the 1960s, it was cancelled amid protests in the 1970s.


  1. Evelyn, Dickson, and Ackerman, p. 245; Potomac Planning Task Force, p. 64.
  2. Flynn and Mason, p. 9; Stanton, p. xiv.
  3. 1 2 Wahll, p. 128.
  4. Smith, p. 22.
  5. Emory Scott A.; Fanz, Amy K.; Hayes, Daniel; Schopp, Paul W.; and Gill, Christine. Combined Phase IB Archaeological Survey and Phase II Archaeological Investigation: SR 1 North Frederica Grade Separated Intersection, Frederica, Kent County, Delaware. Volume I. February 2007, p. 4. Accessed 2013-03-03.
  6. McAtee, p. 62.
  7. Mason, p. 5.
  8. Wennerstrom, p. 27.
  9. Office of Conservation, Interpretation, and Use, p. 44, 46.
  10. 1 2 D'Angelis, p. 1-3.
  11. Cultural Landscape Program, p. 7; Bahr, et al., p. 15-16.
  12. "The Suburban Beauties of Washington." The Repository. January 1874, p. 59.
  13. Skinner, p. 218; Alexander, p. 11.
  14. 1 2 Berg, p. 78.
  15. D'Angelis, p. 4.
  16. D'Angelis, p. 5.
  17. Davis, p. 177.
  18. "Women's Club to Hear About Parkway Plans." The Washington Post. January 1, 1929; "Cramton Urges His Park Building Bill." The Washington Post. February 14, 1929.
  19. "Amendment Plans Great Falls Bridge." The Washington Post. February 15, 1930.
  20. "Appendix C: Capper-Cramton Act." Great Falls Park Final General Management Plan/EIS. George Washington Memorial Parkway. National Park Service. Fall 2007. Accessed 2012-10-24.
  21. Craig, p. 1616-1617.
  22. This plan would have redesignated the existing Whitehurst Freeway as the Potomac River Freeway, and extended the freeway on top of Canal Road NW to the Georgetown Reservoir, where it would become the Palisades Freeway. The Palisades Freeway would have connected to the Clara Barton Parkway.
  23. Schrag, p. 120.
  24. Dimento and Ellis, p. 164-167.
  25. Schrag, p. 138-141.
  26. Clarke, p. 12.
  27. Baldacci, The Camel Club.
  28. Herron, p. 109.
  29. Truman, p. 97.