On July 4, 1828, while the nation celebrated the anniversary of America’s Independence, a crowd five miles west of Washington, DC at Little Falls, Maryland cheered and toasted as President John Quincy Adams broke ground for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Known then as the “Great National Project,” the finished canal was to span from Georgetown to the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, but lack of funding, labor issues, inflation, land disputes, and legal controversies interfered with its completion. Eventually the canal would stretch from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The historic canal gave hope of a new life to thousands of immigrants and families who worked and lived on it. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park preserves this historic engineering achievement and the legacy of the diverse peoples associated with the development and operation of the C&O Canal.
The first plans for developing a commercial water route from the Potomac River to the Ohio River began with President George Washington, who in 1785 established the Patowmack Company with his associates to improve navigation around the Potomac River’s rapids and falls. The efforts of the president and his associates eventually resulted in the installation of lock systems at Little Falls in Maryland and Great Falls in Virginia, but Washington’s dream to develop a Potomac waterway that would open up transportation to the West did not materialize until after his death. Although the Patowmack Company successfully made over 200 of the river’s 287 miles navigable, the erratic current of the Potomac made it impossible for workers to develop skirting canals that would bypass all of the river’s treacherous rapids. The Patowmack Company’s experiences would serve as a lesson for its successors.
On January 27, 1824, the State of Virginia chartered the Chesapeake and Ohio Company to construct a shipping canal that would serve as a trade route between the eastern seaboard and the western range of the Appalachian Mountains. The Chesapeake and Ohio Company acquired the rights of the Patowmack Company, whose failed experiences influenced the new company to build an artificial canal parallel to the Potomac River. Although the company did not use the technique of cutting skirting canals around the river rapids, building the canal along the rocky terrain of the Potomac also proved difficult for the engineers and laborers who worked on the C&O Canal. In addition to the difficult terrain, the Chesapeake and Ohio Company initially struggled with a shortage of labor that eventually led the company to campaign for immigrant workers.
Attracted by the promise of a better life in America, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, and England worked long hours to dig the 184.5-mile canal. Most were masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths who built the C&O Canal’s 11 stone aqueducts--including the historic Monocacy and Washington Aqueduct Systems--74 lift locks to accommodate a rise of 605 feet and the brick-lined tunnel. Lined with over six million bricks, the 3,118-foot Paw Paw tunnel still stands as a testament to the hard work of the immigrant laborers. Other structures include hundreds of culverts that helped carry roads and streams beneath the canal, waste weirs that regulated the flow of water through the canal, feeder dams, the incline plane, and fish ladders.
As the laborers completed each section of the canal, boats soon began navigating the canal. By 1831, traders were using the waterway between Little Falls and Seneca, and in 1833, boats could navigate the canal to Harpers Ferry. When the workers completed the canal in 1831, the trip from Georgetown to Cumberland lasted seven days. With the increase of trade and travel on the canal, the region attracted numerous ethnic groups seeking employment opportunities at the canal. In addition to African Americans, American Indians, and the immigrant groups who worked and operated the canal, many families also established their businesses and homes on and along the canal.
From 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., families worked together to operate the canal boats that carried cargo between Georgetown and Cumberland. Traditionally, the father was the captain, the mother cooked and cleaned, and the children tended the mules (mules were the preferred "engines" of the C & O Canal boat captains). While the boats carried cargo, the families and anyone aboard the boat slept in a 12’x12’ cabin. The boat was not only a family business, it served as home and school, and although they traditionally earned less than $15 a trip, these families depended on the canal for their livelihood. Unfortunately, by 1924, floods and competition from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would end their business and canal trade.
At Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, visitors can ride along the historic canal on a mule drawn boat tour. While visitors relax and enjoy the natural sights of their journey, park rangers in period clothing demonstrate what life was like for the families who worked and lived on the canal. Structures on the C&O Canal tour illustrate the magnitude of the engineering achievement and the aesthetic value of the artistic work carved by laborers on the canal’s masonry structures.
Visitors and residents can also experience the history, landscape, and wildlife of the Potomac River valley by hiking, camping, and biking in designated areas of the park. Certain watered sections from Georgetown to Milepost 22 of the canal make canoeing and non-motorized boating possible, as long as canal users carry their boats or canoes around each lock. Private canal boat tours are also available for celebrating special occasions.
Those interested in participating in ranger interpretive programs are encouraged to check the schedule of events listed on the park website or in the quarterly C&O publication. Some interpretive programs include the Life and Death on the C&O Canal, the lift lock demonstrations, and mule programs.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, starts in Georgetown in Washington, DC and ends in Cumberland, MD. Click here to view the National Register of Historical Places file: text and photos. There are six visitor centers serving the public along the route; their hours of operation vary. The park itself is open during daylight hours. For more information, visit the visit the National Park Service C&O Canal website.
Many components of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the segments located at the Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, Brunswick, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland. The park is featured in both the National Park Service Washington, DCand All Aboard for Cumberland Travel Itineraries. The C&O Canal is also the subject of an online lesson plan, The Building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.