Canal Construction 1828-1850
On July 4, 1828, President John Quincy Adams turned over a spadeful of dirt during ceremonies at Little Falls, Maryland, and therefore began construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It was officially the work of the C&O Canal Company, which raised about $3.6 million from private and public investors. Included among its stockholders were the federal government, the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the cities of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria; all of them hoped the waterway would bring trade and therefore jobs to the region. As it turned out, events that day would affect the C&O in another way, because it was also on the 4th that work began on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O).
The canal was finally completed in 1850 at a total cost of $11 million, the original plan to extend the waterway over the Allegheny Mountains having long since been abandoned. The canal 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.
Boats began to appear on the canal soon after the first short section was completed in 1831 between Little Falls and Seneca. 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. Trade increased as other segments opened in western Maryland, and cargoes of flour, grain, building stone, and whiskey began to move down to Georgetown. Not until the canal reached Cumberland, however, did the tonnage increase substantially. Large quantities of coal from the Cumberland region began to be shipped, and by 1871, the peak year, some 850,000 tons were carried down the canal. Trade was so busy that at times more than 500 boats were in operation on the canal.
Last updated: September 18, 2021