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Setting the Stage

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, begun in 1828 and completed in 1850, was an artificial waterway constructed along the Potomac River. It succeeded an earlier venture, led by George Washington, to improve navigation of the Potomac by constructing canals. The C & O was intended, as its name suggests, to connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, but it never made it that far. Rough terrain, problems with acquiring a right-of-way, labor shortages, and too little capital consistently delayed work, and by the time the canal reached Cumberland, Maryland, about half-way to the Ohio, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had diminished the need for a water route to the Ohio Valley. When the full canal opened in 1850, a boat traveling northwest from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland covered 184.5 miles and passed through 74 lift locks that elevated it 605 feet, enough to compensate for the Potomac's fall as the river flowed down to the bay. The C & O closed in 1924, but during its 75 years of operation it provided the Potomac River Valley a major commercial route.




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