Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
The Making of a Park
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Before railroads and highways, water was the only good way to transport heavy cargoes over long distances. As American settlement grew rapidly beyond the Alleghenies in the early 19th century, eastern commercial interests promoted the construction of canals to link the western hinterlands with seaboard markets. The success of New York's Erie Canal, built between 1817 and 1825, spurred other such ventures, among them the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

George Washington had been among the first to envision water-borne trade between the Chesapeake region and the Ohio country. In 1785 he helped organize the Potomac Company to build skirting canals around falls and clear other obstacles in the Potomac River above tidewater. After these attempts to improve river navigation proved inadequate, Congress in 1825 chartered the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company to build a canal alongside the Potomac from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, thence over the mountains to the headwaters of the Ohio. The company began work on July 4, 1828, with President John Quincy Adams turning the first spadeful of earth at Little Falls, Maryland. By fateful coincidence, a similar ceremony at Baltimore that same day inaugurated the nation's first major commercial railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio.

From the beginning, the canal was plagued with problems. Unforeseen rock formations hampered excavation. Lumber, stone, lime, and other building materials were often less available and more expensive than anticipated. Labor shortages and disputes slowed work progress, as did a protracted legal battle with the B & O Railroad over use of the narrow right-of-way above Point of Rocks. By 1839 the canal company had built and opened 134 miles of canal from Georgetown to near Hancock, but serious financial difficulties delayed completion of the remaining fifty miles to Cumberland until 1850. Easily outpacing the C & O, the B & O had reached Cumberland eight years earlier on its route westward. The canal, its builders heavily in debt, went no farther.

The 184.5-mile canal encompassed 74 lift locks to accommodate the 605-foot difference in elevation between Georgetown and Cumberland, seven dams to impound river water and feed it into the ditch, eleven stone aqueducts over major Potomac tributaries and hundreds of culverts for lesser streams and road underpasses, and a great assortment of water control devices, river locks, bridges, and lockhouses. Its two most impressive engineering features were undoubtedly the Monocacy Aqueduct, spanning 560 feet atop seven arches, and the 3,117-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, dug through a mountain to shortcut two bends in the river. By the slackwaters above Dams 4 and 5 no ditch was built; there the mule-drawn barges entered the river, being pulled from the towpath along the bank.

Rendered obsolescent by the railroad, the canal nevertheless plied a respectable trade for several decades. Coal, agricultural products, lumber, and building stone descended the waterway; lesser westward cargoes included fish, salt, fertilizer, and iron ore. In 1875, the peak year of its operation, the canal carried nearly a million tons. But the lucrative coal trade shifted increasingly to the railroad. During all but a few years the canal, which had cost more than $11 million to build, operated at a loss.

Recurring floods added to the canal company's woes. Damage from flooding in 1886 forced the unrestrained sale of repair bonds, which carried a preferred mortgage on the physical property of the canal. In the spring of 1889 the rains that caused the infamous Johnstown Flood also devastated the Potomac Valley, leaving the canal in ruins. The B & O Railroad, which acquired most of the canal company's construction and repair bonds, had courts in Maryland and Washington appoint its representatives as receivers or trustees for the company. They restored the canal to operation by September 1891 and organized the Chesapeake and Ohio Transportation Company, a shadow corporation enabling the canal to show a profit and avoid its forced sale to a possible competitor. [1]

Low-volume traffic continued until May 14, 1924, when a relatively minor flood again halted canal navigation. The receivers repaired the lower five miles from the river inlet at Lock 5 to Georgetown, where the company profited from supplying canal water to several mills. But they took no action to repair damage and restore navigation to the remaining 180 miles. The era of canal commerce in the Potomac Valley had ended.

To avoid foreclosure, the company had to assure the courts that the canal was not abandoned. According to Walter S. Sanderlin, author of the principal C & O Canal history: "The court accepted the position of the receivers, and ruled that the canal had not forfeited its rights by non-operation, but that the 'other' aspect of its business, the maintenance of a canal for purposes of navigation, was merely suspended temporarily in the absence of remunerative business. Both the receivers and the court continued to maintain the ludicrous contention that the canal was not abandoned, and could easily and quickly be put into navigable condition if trade were offered—even after the dams and feeders filled up and washed out, locks and lockhouses deteriorated into a hopelessly unusable condition, and saplings two, three, and four inches in diameter grew in the trunk, destroying the puddling and often obscuring the canal itself." [2]

Of course, the B & O Railroad had no desire to return the obsolete, unprofitable canal to operation. Its primary concern was that the potentially valuable right-of-way not fall into the hands of a competitor, such as the Western Maryland Railway. If the property could be sold with assurance that it would not be used for commercial transportation, the railroad would be delighted.

How else could an old canal be put to use?

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Last Updated: 11-Oct-2004