Brook Trout and the Civil War: A Glimpse at the History of the Potomac River Watershed

Lili Badri ·
5 July 2022

The Potomac River Watershed has a rich natural and human history that has shaped the region until present day. The mountainous landscapes of the watershed have not only held onto the remnants of the Industrial Revolution, but they have also borne witness to many of the bloody battles of the American Civil War. Located near the southwestern area of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Potomac River Watershed holds a geographic reach across parts of the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Land-use for the watershed is approximately: 55% forest, 26% agriculture, 14% developed land, and 6% water and wetlands (Potomac, 2022).

As part of the Coastal Ocean Assessment for Sustainability and Transformation project, also known as COAST Card, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to visit notable sites in the Potomac Watershed to put into context the history of the area and to engage with stakeholders to identify key values and threats to the region. Prior to these site visits, a planning workshop with stakeholders was held at Hood College and has been detailed in a previous blog post.

On Friday, June 17th, we first met with Dr. Bob Hilderbrand at the Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, MD. Dr. Hilderbrand is an associate professor at the Appalachian Lab, and his research focuses on stream ecology and restoration, aquatic invertebrates, and conservation. On our visit, he explained how trees in the watershed, such as chestnut and oak, were historically massive in size prior to human logging influences. Such trees fostered forests with large layers of organic matter, providing stormwater absorption and aquifer recharge. However, as human influence increased in the area, the natural stormwater management of these forests was greatly reduced, resulting in negative impacts to stream biogeochemistry and ecology.

Bob sits at a bench across from the COAST card team who are sitting at a table outside.The COAST Card team met with Dr. Bob Hilderbrand at the Appalachian Laboratory to discuss changes to the forest and fish ecology of the Potomac Watershed. Photo by Pål Davidsen.

Fish populations, particularly brook trout, were originally adapted to cool, low-flow stream conditions, but as shifting land use transformed the landscape, stream waters have become warmer and flashier. These stressor have resulted in increased mortality of temperature-sensitive fish in the watershed, such as brook trout. In addition to stormwater influences, the fish have seen a decline due to pollution from coal mining. Such stressors have amounted to a 90% loss in habitable area for brook trout.

Coal mining has been a prevalent industry in the North Branch area of the watershed, taking off shortly after the Civil War. Runoff from these mines has resulted in a variety of pollutants entering nearby streams, which eventually flow into the Potomac River. This particular pollution is referred to as acid mine drainage because the runoff produces highly acidic water that reacts with its surroundings, thus eroding the streambed while also creating an inhospitable environment for biota.

One such example is Braddock Run, a stream which has been permanently stained orange-red due the presence of elevated levels of copper in the water. The stream was conveniently located adjacent to our hotel, so we were able to see the mining impacts readily. Interestingly, Dr. Hilderbrand revealed that some brook trout have adapted to living in these polluted areas because of the cooler water temperature and reduced human predation.

Image of a section of the Braddock Run stream. The water and the rocks are an orange-red color. The Braddock Run stream has been polluted by coal mining which has left the stream an orange-red color. Photo by Pål Davidsen.

After meeting with Bob, we drove to the location of a coal mine and observed the plumes of dust that were emitted from the process. These particular surface mines were produced by removing mountaintops to access the coal and are known to contribute to both air and water pollution (The dirty, 2014). Out in the horizon and past the coal mines, there were several wind turbines, creating an ironic juxtaposition of old and new energy. It was almost as if the dusty coal mines were attempting to conceal the turbines, but their efforts were fruitless as the giant turbines continued to spin, disappearing any traces of dust. The looming future simply could not be ignored.

In the far distance, there is a row of turbines on the mountainous horizon in Frostburg, Maryland.An active coal mine in Frostburg, MD (top left). While viewing the mine, it began to emit a large plume of dust (top right). On the horizon, we could see a row of wind turbines (bottom). Photos by Lili Badri and Pål Davidsen.

The next stop was Dan’s Rock Overlook, which provided a spectacular view of the mountains and the geology of the Potomac watershed. In the distance, we could see parts of the Potomac River and more coal mines. After that, we stopped at the town of Westernport, MD where we viewed the confluence of the North Branch Potomac River and George Creek. Like many other towns in the area, Westernport had a rich coal mining history; however, in present day, the mines have been abandoned and continue to contribute to water pollution. This visit was then followed by a brief stop at the Savage River Reservoir, located just northwest of Westernport. The Savage River empties into the North Branch Potomac River and is known for its pristine waters and recreational value. Its unique location in the watershed has put the river at an advantage in terms of water quality, indicating that the Potomac River Watershed also contains some unpolluted regions.

The left image is a group photo of the COAST Card team sitting atop the overlook at Dan’s Rock. The right image is one of the North Branch Potomac River, with part of the George Creek entering the river in Westernport, Maryland.Group photo of the COAST Card team sitting atop the overlook at Dan’s Rock (left, photo by Lili Badri) and the confluence of George Creek and the North Branch Potomac River (right, photo by Pål Davidsen).

While human influences on natural history were a primary focus of our trip, it was also important to acknowledge historic human interactions in the watershed. When the Civil War moved northward into Maryland, the events that ensued led to the Battle of Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, where nearly 4,000 soldiers were killed. We traveled to Antietam National Battlefield where we stopped at several key locations of the deadly battle. Now, the land is managed by the National Parks Service and used to grow crops such as corn.

An open field of an Antietam battlefield with a wooden gate in the foreground. The site of one of the battlefields of Antietam. Photo by Pål Davidsen.

The last stop for the day was Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Here, we saw the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, also known as “The Point.” The economy of Harpers Ferry was originally due to its armory factory, which was destroyed at the start of the Civil War.

A group of 8 people from the COAST Card team stand on the river bank with the view of the two rivers behind them.Group Photo of the COAST Card team at “The Point” in Harpers Ferry where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers merge. Photo by Pål Davidsen.

It was fascinating to experience so many historic locations within a short timespan. Considering the human and natural history of the area, we hope to evaluate the Potomac River Watershed using the COAST card framework. This framework includes environmental report cards, social network analysis, and system dynamics modeling. Although there have been previous report cards on the Potomac River and Watershed, the difference here is to reinforce the report cards with modeling components which can offer insight on the future of the watershed. With this work, we ultimately hope to preserve the values of the Potomac River Watershed while reducing potential threats. In hopes of engaging a wide variety of stakeholders for this project, we are hosting an open house workshop on July 21st at the Whitaker Community Commons building at Hood College from 12- 8 pm.

You can follow the COAST Card Project on these social media platforms:

Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin

We recognize the Indigenous and native peoples who originally occupied and tended to the land and waters of what we know today as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed includes the historic lands of the Accomack, Arrohatec, Chesoenhaka (Nottoway), Chesapeake, Cuttatawomen, Doeg, Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee), Kecoughtan, Kiskiack, Lənape Haki-nk (Lenni-Lenape), Lumbee, Manahoac, Massawomeck, Monacan, Nacotchtank (Anacostan), Nandtaughtacund, Nansemond, Nentego (Nanticoke), Occohannock, Onawmanient, Onöndowa'ga:' (Seneca), Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Piscataway, Pissaseck, Pocomoke, Powhatan, Quiyoughcohannock, Rappahannock, Sekakawon, Susguehannock, Warraskoyack, and Youghtanund.


  1. Potomac Basin facts. ICPRB. (2022, February 23). Retrieved from
  2. The dirty effects of mountaintop removal mining. (2014, October 21). Washington Post. Retrieved from

About the author

Lili Badri

Lili is a science communication intern at UMCES IAN. She earned her Master’s degree in Environmental Science at SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. There she studied long-term dissolved organic matter (DOM) dynamics of an intensively monitored, forested watershed in the Adirondack Mountains. She also earned her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at the University of South Alabama where she studied the characterization of DOM and trace analysis of artificial sweeteners in natural waters. She enjoys spending time outdoors and cooking new recipes.

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