The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal originated out of concerns to open up a better transportation route to the west. From its inception, the canal struggled to become a profitable enterprise. Many things, including a competing new form of transportation, the railroad, added to the toil. Finally, in the 1870’s, the canal began to turn a profit bringing with it new problems to the C&O Canal.
To encourage the growth of the canal as a profitable enterprise, the Canal Company encouraged more boats to ply its waters. In its brief "heyday" the canal boasted of over 540 boats in operation. This enormous jump in the number of vessels on its water brought about the earliest "gridlock" to the Washington D.C. area. Captains were finding they had to tie up further and further from Georgetown, encountering longer and longer delays. Sitting in traffic today along the "beltway" encircling D.C. it is not unusual to encounter two-hour back-ups. Back in the 1870’s, it was beginning to take two days to get into Georgetown from two miles away. The frustration they were feeling is understandable when linked to our transportation "gridlock" that is complicating travel in most every major city in the U.S. The boatmen, like most of us today, were always eager to avoid delays. As often happens, frustration led to solution.
Georgetown was not the final destination for every boat. Many boats simply needed to go through Georgetown to access to the Potomac River at the tidelock. The Canal Company realized that if those boats could somehow bypass Georgetown it would speed up the trip for the boats that were heading there.
The main problem was that where the boats backed up was over 39 feet above the river at low tide. Simply building a river lock was out of the question. Finally, a solution to this aggravating problem came from the Potomac Lock and Dock Company. They proposed and built "The Incline Plane".
The finished product was a caisson into which a boat would float. The boat, inside the caisson, would travel on the rails of an inclined plane from the canal and descend into the river. It was balanced by two counterweights and powered by a turbine supplied with waterpower from the canal. The turbine would turn the grooved pulleys through which the cables passed that were connected to the caisson and counterweights. The counterweights were wooden frames that were filled with stone weighing 200 tons each.
Upon its completion, the structure was the largest of its kind in the world and duly gained acclaim as an engineering marvel. A scale model of it was displayed at the 1878 Paris Exposition. Nearly as soon as it went into operation, however it became non-essential. Transportation on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal rapidly declined in the following decade. Seriously damaged during a flood in 1889, the incline plane was never put back into service.
Today, little remains of this early engineering marvel. A small wayside exhibit stands at mile 2.26 as a memory of the ongoing efforts of Americans to overcome obstacles, even the obstacles we created.