On October 10, 1850, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was completed and opened for business along its entire 184.5-mile length from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. Sections of the canal opened for navigation as they were completed; from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Seneca, Maryland in 1831; then to Harpers Ferry by 1834; to Hancock in 1839; and finally to Cumberland in 1850.
Before the C&O Canal was built, there were many attempts to improve transportation along the Potomac River as it was the only river on the East Coast to bisect the Appalachian mountain barrier and therefore was considered the best route for Western trade. As early as 1749, the Ohio Company of Virginia (a land and trading venture organized by prominent Englishmen and Virginians) established trails and wagon roads along the upper Potomac River Valley, linking it to the Monongahela River (a tributary of the Ohio River).
In 1772, George Washington founded the Potomac Company and proposed constructing skirting canals on both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac to bypass the river’s five worst obstacles to transportation—the most serious being Great Falls. A boat would pole down the river and detour around the rapids and falls by using the skirting canals and locks. The state of Maryland, however, had jurisdiction over the Potomac River and did not support the proposal. In 1784, after becoming a national hero, Washington tried again and finally received the support of both Virginia and Maryland. As the first president of the Potomac Company, he oversaw the building of skirting canals, locks, and channels on the Potomac River.
George Washington died in 1799 and never saw his dream completed. The Potomac canal project, the most ambitious civil engineering project in America in the eighteenth century, was not finished until 1802, making 220 miles of the Potomac between the Savage River and Washington, D.C., navigable for trade.
The Potomac Company had its peak year in 1811, collecting more than $22,000 in tolls and shipping 16,350 tons of goods on 1,300 boats with a value of more than $925,000. But unpredictable currents, droughts, and flooding still made transportation on the river a risky business.
By the 1820s, a proposal was made to build a permanent artificial canal along the river from the nation’s capital all the way to the Ohio River. The rights of the old Potomac Company were transferred to a new company incorporated by Virginia and Maryland—the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company—and the new canal project was begun.
The groundbreaking for the “Great National Project,” as it was called, took place on July 4, 1828—the same day as the groundbreaking for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. President John Quincy Adams turned the first spade full of earth for the canal at Little Falls, Maryland. From the very beginning, a scarcity of building supplies, labor shortages and unrest, difficulties with excavation, and the high cost of land acquisition slowed down the project. At Point of Rocks, in Frederick County, Maryland, the C&O Canal Company competed with the B&O Railroad for property rights. The ensuing lawsuit delayed the project for four years. The last fifty miles of the canal was delayed another eleven years by serious financial problems and construction of the Paw Paw Tunnel. By the time that the canal was opened in Cumberland, the B&O Railroad already was well established and operating in the Ohio Valley, and the C&O Canal Company had dropped its plans to continue another 180 miles westward to Pittsburgh.
The C&O Canal operated between Cumberland, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., for seventy-four years with peak use in the 1870s. In 1875 canal boats hauled nearly 974,000 tons of freight—mostly coal, flour, iron, and limestone. In 1889, however, a flood destroyed the canal, forcing the C&O Canal Company into bankruptcy. The B&O Railroad took over receivership of the canal and operated it until 1924 when it was destroyed by another flood and then abandoned.
In 1938, the U.S. government purchased the canal property and hoped to restore it as a natural recreational area. Plans changed, however, and in the 1950s the government proposed building a highway on the property. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid outdoorsman, opposed the highway construction and organized a committee to preserve the canal. These efforts led to the creation of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
- Watch an early motion picture of a trip down the C&O Canal in a 1917 film entitled Down the Old Potomac from the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies. Search this collection on the term canal for more on the Panama Canal, the Erie Canal, and the canal that circled the Pan-American Exposition.
- Search the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 using the terms potomac transportation or potomac navigation (match all of these words) to read about George Washington’s thoughts about the importance of the Potomac River to western trade. Also search potomac company (match this exact phrase) to read correspondence and diary entries regarding his overseeing of the Potomac Company construction of canals and locks. Other terms to search are potomac, canals, locks, rapids, or falls.
- Search the phrase chesapeake and ohio or c&o canal in the following collections to see related images of this historical waterway.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains proceedings and legislation concerning the canal. Search on the phrase potomac company or chesapeake and ohio canal company to find petitions and resolutions for funding of the Potomac Company and the C&O Canal Company.