Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, former waterway, c.185 mi (300 km) long, from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., running along the north bank of the Potomac River. A successor to the Potomac Company's (1784-1828) navigation improvement project, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was planned to extend W to Pittsburgh. Work was begun in 1828, but financial and labor problems (leading in 1834 to the first use of federal troops to settle a labor dispute), as well as opposition from the rival Baltimore and Ohio RR, delayed completion to Cumberland until 1850. Although extension to Pittsburgh proved impractical, the canal experienced a busy period in the 1870s carrying coal from the Cumberland mines. The canal was used until it was damaged by floods in 1924; in 1938 it was sold to the U.S. government. Partially restored, the canal and its towpath were proclaimed a national monument in 1961 and in 1971 became a national historical park (see National Parks and Monuments, table).

See study by G. W. Ward (1899, repr. 1973).

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal, and occasionally referred to as the "Grand Old Ditch," operated from 1836 until 1924 parallel to the Potomac River in Maryland from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC. The total length of the canal is about 184.5 miles (300 km). The elevation change of 605 ft (185 m) was accommodated with 74 canal locks. To enable the canal to cross relatively small streams, over 150 culverts were built. The crossing of major streams required the construction of 11 aqueducts (10 of which remain). The canal also extends through the 3120 ft (950 m) Paw Paw Tunnel. The principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains. The canal way is now maintained as a park, with a linear trail following the old towpath, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.


Early river projects

After the American Revolutionary War, George Washington was the chief advocate of using waterways to connect the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes and Ohio River. Washington founded the Potowmack Company in 1785 to make navigability improvements to the Potomac River. The Patowmack Company built a number of skirting canals around the major falls including the Patowmack Canal in Virginia. When completed, it allowed boats and rafts to float downstream towards Georgetown. Going upstream was a bit harder. Slim boats could be slowly poled upriver. The completion of the Erie Canal worried southern traders that their business might be threatened by the Northern canal; plans for a canal linking the Ohio and Cheasapeake were drawn up as early as 1820.

Building the canal

In 1824, the holdings of the Patowmack Company were ceded to the Chesapeake and Ohio Company. Benjamin Wright, formerly Chief Engineer of the Erie Canal, was named Chief Engineer of this new effort, and construction began with a groundbreaking ceremony on July 4, 1828 by President John Quincy Adams.

The narrow strip of available land along the Potomac River from Point of Rocks to Harpers Ferry caused a legal battle between the C&O Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1828 as both sought to exclude the other from its use. Following a Maryland state court battle involving Daniel Webster and Roger B. Taney, the companies later compromised to allow the sharing of the right of way.

In 1836, the canal was used as a Star Route for the carriage of mails from Georgetown to Shepherdstown using canal packets. The contract was held by Albert Humrickhouse at $1,000 per annum for a daily service of 72 book miles. In 1843, the Potomac Aqueduct Bridge was constructed near the present-day Key Bridge to connect the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to the Alexandria Canal which led to Alexandria, Virginia. In the 1870s, a canal inclined plane was built two miles upriver from Georgetown, so that boats whose destination was downriver from Washington could bypass the congestion in Georgetown. The inclined plane was dismantled after a major flood in 1889 when ownership of the Canal transferred to the B&O Railroad, which operated the canal to prevent its right of way (particularly at Point of Rocks) from falling into the hands of the Western Maryland Railway.

Boom and bust

By the time the canal reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1850, it had already been rendered obsolete; the B&O Railroad had reached Cumberland eight years previously. Debt-ridden, the company dropped its plan to continue construction of the next 180 miles of the canal into Ohio. Operations ceased in 1924 after another flood damaged the canal.

National park

In 1938 the abandoned canal was obtained from the B&O by the United States in exchange for a loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The government planned to restore it as a recreation area. Although the lower of the canal were repaired and rewatered, the project was halted when the United States entered World War II and resources were needed elsewhere. After the war, Congress expressed interest in developing the canal and towpath as a parkway. However, the idea of turning the canal over to automobiles was opposed by some, including United States Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas. In March 1954, Douglas led an eight-day hike of the towpath from Cumberland to D.C. Although 58 people participated in one part of the hike or another, only nine men, including Douglas, hiked the full . Popular response to and press coverage of the hike turned the tide against the parkway idea and, on January 8, 1971, the canal was designated a National Historical Park.

Presently the park includes nearly 20,000 acres (80 km²) and receives over 3 million recorded visits each year. Flooding continues to threaten historical structures on the canal and attempts at restoration. The Park Service has rewatered portions of the canal, but the majority of the canal does not have water in it.

Today the park is a popular getaway for Washington residents. The towpath is popular with bikers and joggers. Fishing and boating are popular in the rewatered portions, and whitewater kayakers tackling the world class rapids of the Potomac sometimes use the canal to shuttle upstream. The park offers rides on two reproduction canal boats, The Georgetown and The Charles F. Mercer, during the spring, summer and autumn. The boats are pulled by mules and Park Rangers in historical dress work the locks and boat while giving a historical program.

Locks and engineering

To build the canal, the C&O Canal Company utilized a total of 74 lift locks that raised the canal from sea level at Georgetown to 610 feet at Cumberland. Eleven stone aqueducts were built to carry the canal over the Potomac's tributaries. In addition, seven dams were built to supply water to the canal, waste weirs to control water flow, and 200 culverts to carry roads and streams underneath the canal. An assortment of lockhouses, bridges, and stop gates were also constructed along the canal's path.

One of the most impressive engineering features of the canal is the Paw Paw Tunnel, which runs for 3,118 feet under a mountain. Built to save six miles of construction around the obstacle, the 3/4-mile tunnel used over six million bricks. The tunnel took almost twelve years to build; in the end, the tunnel was only wide enough for single lane traffic.

Points of interest


General references

Further reading

  • Life on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, 1859 [York, Pa. : American Canal and Transportation Center, 1975]
  • Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
  • Blackford, John, 1771-1839. Ferry Hill Plantation journal: life on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 4 January 1838-15 January 1839 2d ed. Shepherdstown, W. Va. : [American Canal and Transportation Center], 1975.
  • Cotton, Robert. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Through the Lens of Sir Robert Cotton
  • Fradin, Morris. Hey-ey-ey, lock! Cabin John, Md., See-and-Know Press, 1974
  • Gutheim, Frederick. The Potomac. New York: Rinehart and Co., 1949.
  • Hahn, Thomas F. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Lock-Houses and Lock-Keepers.
  • Hahn, Thomas F. Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal: Georgetown Tidelock to Cumberland. Shepherdstown, WV: American Canal and Transportation Center, 1985.
  • High, Mike. The C&O Canal Companion, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Kapsch, Robert and Kapsch, Elizabeth Perry. Monocacy Aqueduct on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Medley Press, 2005.
  • Kapsch, Robert. The Potomac Canal, George Washington and the Waterway West.Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2007.
  • Kytle, Elizabeth. Home on the Canal, Cabin John, Md.: Seven Locks Press, c. 1983.
  • Martin, Edwin. A Beginner's Guide to Wildflowers of the C and O Towpath, 1984.
  • Mulligan, Kate. Canal Parks, Museums and Characters of the Mid-Atlantic, Wakefield Press, Washington, DC, 1999.
  • Mulligan, Kate. Towns along the Towpath, 1997. (Available from C &O Association) Here is Chapter 3 about Seneca.
  • National Park Service, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Washington, DC: NPS Division of Publications, 1991.
  • Rada, James Jr. Canawlers, Legacy Press, 2001.

See also

External links

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