The History of Little Seneca Lake

By Susan Soderberg

We associate this Upcounty favorite with summer outdoor fun—but that’s not what the lake’s creators had in mind when it was built. 

Families picnicking, children cavorting on the playgrounds, teens paddling around the lake in kayaks and fishermen dropping their lures hoping for a bite, summer is here at Black Regional Hill Park. Black Hill and Little Seneca Lake, forming the northern border of Germantown, is a well-used recreational area, especially on these hot summer days. But the lake was not created only for having fun. It is an emergency water supply for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the Washington Aqueduct, and the Fairfax County Water Authority in Virginia.

Little Seneca Lake is fed by the flow from Little Seneca Creek and its two main tributaries, Ten Mile Creek and Cabin Branch (“branch” being another word for stream). Native Americans used these waterways for fishing and had hunting camps in the surrounding hills. The first European settlers set up many mills along the fast-flowing streams. Farms were built and the little village of Ten Mile Creek had a school and Pyles grist and saw mill. After the train came through in 1873 people would come up from Washington in the summer to vacation in the country at several hotels in the area. One hotel on Ten Mile Creek that was not affected by the creation of the lake because of being situated on high ground is the 22-room High View Hotel, now a county historic site.

The story of the park and the lake goes way back to the 1960s when the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) started buying up land around streams in Montgomery County to protect the watersheds and manage the resources of the county. Beginning in 1968, with the help of the Soil Conservation Service, the county surveyed the creeks and streams and developed a plan. The Seneca Creek watershed, and especially Ten Mile Creek were identified as particularly sensitive areas. A 1974 study of Ten Mile Creek showed that its species diversity was one of the highest of small steams in the county with three threatened species of fish: cutlips minnow, comely shiner and rosyside dace.

A Master Plan was developed for the Seneca Creek watershed in 1977, which included a multi-purpose reservoir. This coincided with a major water shortage in the Washington, DC-metropolitan area in the mid-1970s. So, in 1978 the county got together with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) and agreed to enlarge this lake and have it as an emergency water supply for the WSSC Potomac River intake. A steering committee was formed of engineers, environmental consultants, geo-technical consultants and government representatives to plan the park and lake.

After a plan was made it was presented to the public at a public hearing. After approval approximately 1,680 acres of land were acquired and the construction of the dam was begun. Twenty-one families were displaced, four dairy farms lost, Rt. 121 had to be redirected and a new bridge built over the forming lake. Of historic sites, one prehistoric site, a one-room schoolhouse and a log slave cabin were lost to the slowly inundating waters, as well as the home and farm of James Boyd, for whom the town of Boyds is named.

As to the benefits, besides an emergency water supply, Little Seneca Lake provides a recreational area, a warm water fishery, flood control, the reduction of sediment, and a new tax base of homes built near the lake to take advantage of the recreation and environment. In addition, the dam, completed in 1984, includes a cold-water release structure that allows water from several levels of the lake to be discharged into the spillway. Consequently, the temperature of the water can be regulated. Cold water coming from the bottom of the deep lake is released during the summer, allowing trout, seeded in the spring, to survive and grow. Wildlife abounds in the 2,000-acre park with beaver, deer, eagles, and many other kinds of birds and waterfowl.

The surface area of the lake is 505 acres and it can be as deep as 68 feet and it holds about 4.5 billion gallons of water. The lake is stocked for recreational fishing. Fish species found in the lake include largemouth bass, tiger muskie, channel catfish, sunfish, and crappie.

The emergency water supply has only been used once since the Lake was created. That was in the summer during the drought of 1999. Hopefully, it will not be needed again in the near future. The Lake and Park provide a wonderful place to escape the summer heat and have a good time, and this will last well into the future.


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