On July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams began "The Great National Project" by turning over the canal's first shovel full of earth near Little Falls, five miles west of Washington, DC. The rocky ground embarrassed the president with three false starts, and foreshadowed how difficult construction would be. The high cost of labor, materials, and land far exceeded original estimates. Rough terrain, labor unrest, disease, and legal battles over land consistently delayed work on the canal. When the canal finally reached Cumberland 22 years later, the original plan to extend the canal to the headwaters of the Ohio River in Pittsburg had long since been abandoned.
Construction scenes were often described as a dizzy stir of activity. Irish, German, Dutch, and English immigrants, promised a better life in America, worked long hours for little pay using primitive tools to dig the canal. Masons, stonecutters, carpenters, and blacksmiths were employed to create the engineering marvels along the canal. These included 11 multi-arched aqueducts and a 3118-foot long brick-lined tunnel. Seventy-four lift locks raised and lowered water levels, working like a staircase to adjust for a 605-foot difference in elevation between Georgetown and Cumberland. Sections opened for navigation as they were completed: Georgetown to Seneca in 1830, then to Harpers Ferry in 1833, to near Hancock in 1839, and finally to Cumberland in 1850. In October of that year, the first five boats filled with coal traveled the distance of the canal.