George Washington has often been called "the father of his country," but he is also considered to be the "father of the C & O Canal." During his lifetime Washington devoted much time and energy to the project of building a canal along the Potomac River.
Washington's interest in the canal began when Lord Fairfax of Virginia hired him to survey Fairfax's western lands. This job took the young Washington along the Potomac into the Ohio Valley, and as he walked through the wilderness he realized that the river provided the most direct route from the tidewater to the Ohio Valley. He also saw all the obstacles that stood in the way of navigating the Potomac: it flowed west to east, had many rapids and whirlpools, and at Great Falls the river dropped 75 feet through a rock-filled gorge in less than half a mile. Yet Washington saw in the fertile Ohio Valley the potential for western expansion, farming, and development. After several more journeys to the head of the Potomac, he realized the greatest obstacle to development was poor internal travel. A canal had never been attempted in America but he became convinced that a water route was possible.
In 1774, Washington introduced a bill into Virginia's House of Burgesses to build canals around the Potomac's five worst obstacles. A boat would be poled down the river and would detour around each obstacle by using the skirting canals and locks. Maryland, which shared jurisdiction over the river, rejected the plan.
In 1784, just after the Revolutionary War, Washington resumed his efforts to promote the canal. Now that Washington was a national hero, Maryland endorsed his plan. The Potowmack Canal Company was created in 1785 and Washington was chosen as its first president. He was frequently on the work site as canals that skirted the obstructions were constructed, channels dug, and boulders removed. The work was extremely difficult, especially at Great Falls. The lock system installed there, which gradually lowered boats down to the level of the river below the falls, has been recognized by construction experts as an engineering marvel.
George Washington died in 1799. His Potowmack Canal was completed in 1802 and operated until 1828. As many as 1300 boats used the route in some years, each carrying up to 15 tons of cargo. The canals made 218 miles of the Potomac River navigable; that is, it did so when the river wasn't frozen, too shallow because of drought, or overflowing because of floods. Some years there were only about 45 days when the water reached a sufficient level for the locks to operate. The Potomac itself was unpredictable and often tore up boats in rapids and whirlpools. Because no one could pole against the strong current, boats had to be broken up in Georgetown and sold along with the other cargo. A more effective way was needed to navigate the Potomac.
In the 1820s the rights of the Potowmack Canal Company were transferred to the new Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. That company planned to build a continuous canal that would link the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. This canal would also parallel the Potomac, but boats would not have to enter the river itself. Boats would be tied to mules that walked along the towpath, a dirt strip parallel to the canal. Dams built on the river would insure that canal always had a constant water level, and lift locks would carry boats through the changes in elevation along the route.
A lift lock was a watertight section of the canal that had wooden gates at either end. If a boat were traveling upstream, for example, it would enter at the downstream gate; the upper gate would already be closed. Once both gates were shut, paddles in the upstream gate would be opened to allow water into the lock. As the water flowed in, the boat would lift until it was at the level of the canal outside the upstream gate. That gate would then be opened, and the boat would continue on its trip. The process would be reversed for a downstream trip, with the lower gate gradually draining water until the level inside the lock matched the level outside.
This would be, the company thought, an absolutely dependable way to navigate boats and deliver cargo to and from the Ohio Valley. As it turned out, though, George Washington's dream of connecting the tidewater to the Ohio Valley by Potomac River navigation would never be realized.