• Historic Shot of Canal Boat on the Canal

    Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

    National Historical Park DC,MD,WV

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  • NEW Overnight parking system

    Before parking a vehicle overnight in any Canal Parking area, visitors must register their vehicle through the new online registration system. Print your reciept and place on your dashboard. If unable to print, please visit the nearest visitor center. More »

  • Water Pump Handles Temporarily Removed

    Bald Eagle Island and Evitts Creek Hiker-Biker Campground water pumps handle have been removed due to bad water samples. Handles will be reinstalled when good water samples are received.

  • Boat Tours at Great Falls

    Due to low water levels in the Great Falls area, call the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center (301-767-3714) in advance of your trip to confirm the mule-drawn boat tour schedule.

  • Parking Lot Closure

    CSX is now beginning a phase of their bridge project that requires the closure of the Lock 74 parking lot for approximatly 18 months. Access to visitor parking near Lock 75 is now re-opened with a gravel parking lot at the site.

Fish Ladders

Great Falls Fish Ladder

Early settlers in Maryland and Virginia depended on fish as a principle source of food. Since the Chesapeake Bay had an abundance of fish, the first colonists gave little thought to the need for fish in the interior waters. However as colonial settlements began to spread westward, the demand for food fish required their movement, or migration, from the Chesapeake Bay to the connecting waterways.

Migrating fish could not go upstream beyond Great Falls on the Potomac. Records indicated that shad, striped bass and white perch were historically found in the waters below the falls, but the eighty foot high, sheer rock barrier prevented their further ascent from downstream. By 1830, industry, dams and canals also impeded migration. The ruthless destruction of large numbers of fish by fish pots, seines, weirs, and striking, further depleted populations.

Concerned citizens of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia demanded that the government restore the supply of fish in the Potomac River basin by providing an upstream passage above the falls for migration. As a result, a Commission of Fisheries was established. In 1875 the new members undertook a study for the construction of a channel around Great Falls to promote the migration of shad fish in the upper Potomac. The commission recommended the creation of a passageway adjacent to the Maryland shoreline with a water rate moderate enough in decent and velocity for the shad to ascend.

For seven years there was no progress on the project. Finally in 1882 public pressure resulted in a Congressional appropriation of $50,000 for a fishway at Great Falls. Patents, plans and specifications for the six-sectioned fishway were prepared. Work commenced in 1885. Six months later a flood carried away the protecting dam, damaged construction, and suspended the project. Late in 1886 repairs were made, but the project needed to be redesigned with sufficient strength to withstand flooding. Finally on July 1, 1892, seventeen years after its proposal, the Fish Ladders of Great Falls were completed at a total cost of $75,000.

Constructed of concrete and yellow pine timbers, the structural remains of the ladders are in excellent condition. Normal water flow in the Potomac covers the units most of the year and thousands of park visitors pass by without recognizing them. Although used by some fish for migratory travel, to date, no shad, white perch or striped bass are using the ladders at Great Falls. Around 1900, the Army Corps of Engineers built a water supply dam at Little Falls on the Potomac, ten miles downstream. The structure blocked the upstream passage for large fish. Thus the historic remains of the fishway at Great Falls stand not as a monument to economic success, but most certainly as a tribute to citizen's early efforts to protect and perpetuate food fish for future generations.

Did You Know?

School bus at Williamsport

Our park partners--the C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal Association--offer scholarships to schools to pay for buses. More...