R&R on the C&O

The Potomac Valley: In the 1800s, the government cut a path for commerce in a growing country. Today, the old canal leads hikers and bikers along the richly historic and surprisingly wild waterway.


On July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams clanked his ceremonial shovel against a rock. After several tries, he hit dirt, drawing cheers from the assembled dignitaries. The occasion was the groundbreaking for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, planned to parallel the Potomac and other rivers from the coastal plain at Little Falls, just above Georgetown, to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. Adams called the canal America's "third great step," after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pyramids of Egypt.

Though the canal would stretch 184.5 miles, from the wharves at Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., it never got to Pittsburgh. It ceased operation in 1924, leaving in its wake a dry, overgrown ditch.

But canal and towpath -- from which mules pulled the cargo-laden boats -- have achieved immortality as the C&O Canal National Historical Park, our nation's skinniest national park. Its smooth, well-maintained towpath today teems with hikers, campers, joggers and bikers absorbing the vistas and wildlife of the Potomac Valley.

River commerce was long a dream of George Washington, who as a young man spent many days surveying the Potomac Valley. He sought trade links to the Ohio Valley that would cement relations with its English and French settlers who felt little allegiance to the United States. The Virginian envisioned canals skirting the powerful falls and rapids of the Potomac, allowing ships to ply the river and trade west of the Appalachians.

In 1785, the cooperative efforts of Maryland and Virginia gave birth to the Patowmack Company, whose mission was to develop Potomac commerce. The hero of the American Revolution became its president. (Because the Articles of Confederation forbade states to make such agreements, this venture helped lead to the constitutional convention two years later.)

Between 1785 and 1828, the Patowmack Company built five canals and bypasses and removed impediments from the river, rendering more than 200 miles navigable, from its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay to well above Washington. Business was good. From 1800 to 1822, close to 14,000 boats carried more than $9 million worth of cargo into Georgetown. But difficulties remained -- the water level varied greatly, the powerful current prevented northbound cargo, and obstacles such as large trees torpedoed the boats. Men sought a safer, more reliable way of harnessing the river.

A canal is born

In 1823, another canal convention convened. Delegates, including Washington's nephew, Bush-rod Washington, and Francis Scott Key, discussed plans for expanding trade west on the Potomac. Two years later, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Co. was chartered. Ambitious plans called for the canal to parallel rivers to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River. Canal boats would be pulled, in both directions, by mules on an adjacent towpath, and a system of lift locks would negotiate the changing elevation. Feeder dams from the Potomac would supply canal water and regulate its level. Sales of stock would raise the necessary funds.

This "Great National Project" would include 184 miles of canal, a 12-yard-wide towpath, 75 locks, seven dams, a 3,100-foot tunnel, and 11 stone aqueducts (to carry the canal over the rivers and streams flowing into the Potomac). The budget was $4.5 million; the timetable, 12 years. But labor violence, disease, war, money shortages and floods would triple its cost and almost double its construction schedule. And another enemy lay in wait: As Adams turned his first spadeful of canal dirt on that hot Independence Day, Marylander Charles Carroll shoveled some Baltimore soil to launch the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The great race to the riches of the west was under way.

The C&O and the B&O fought frequently in their race to the Ohio Valley. Canal progress was stymied by wily railroad land purchases at Point of Rocks, the narrow passage between the Potomac and Catoctin Ridge. A four-year court battle found for the canal, though the Maryland legislature -- prodded by Baltimore businessmen -- kept the B&O on track, and its high-pitched train whistles began terrorizing the mules plodding along the towpath.

The canal finally reached Cumberland in 1850, 10 years behind schedule and $9.5 million over budget. The B&O had arrived eight years earlier, and the Great National Project would go no further. For the next 74 years it operated uneasily. During the Civil War, Confederates attacked its aqueducts to disrupt coal and arms shipments. Floods battered its dams, locks and berms. Nonetheless, in 1875 -- its busiest year -- 905 tons of coal traversed the waterway, which at its peak was plied by 500 boats annually. The 20th century brought bankruptcy and the threat of utter destruction by highway planners.

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