Who built the Potomac Canal?

Here is an image of the stone ruins of an upstream portion of the Patowmack Canal at Great Falls Park with water running in it; an uncommon sight in the park.
Here is an image of the stone ruins of an upstream portion of the Patowmack Canal at Great Falls Park VA with water running in it; an uncommon sight in the park.

NPS Photo: A.Toure

Enslaved Labor built the Patowmack Canal

Today, within the 800 acres of Great Falls Park VA still stands one of the best examples of the ruins of the Patowmack Canal. The sharp corners of the drylayed (stacked without concrete) stonework still reveal the undeniable skill of the enslaved labor force who placed them over 200 years ago.

The Patowmack Company began construction of the five part skirting canal system in 1785, and continued for 17 years. It fully opened to traffic a year after construction finished, in 1802. The endeavor of the Patowmack Company ultimately went bankrupt and transferred its charter to the C&O Canal in 1828. However, a shifted perspective in studying this canal’s history as the first evolutionary stage of America's transportation industry would shine a light of achievement on the Patowmack Company's ingenuity.

Alternatively, this article seeks to explore the historically overlooked realities of the exploited labor force that built the infrastructure of early America. A close look at the lichen and moss covered corners of the canal’s stonewall ruins at Great Falls Park today reveals craftsmanship that continues to stand strong against time. Ironically, the builders were mostly considered unskilled laborers, but they were really innovators at the cutting edge during their time.

Three upriver sections of the canal did not require locks to be built, but instead the river was dredged and boulders moved to accommodate passage in those areas: House Falls, Shenandoah Falls, and Seneca Falls. The remaining two sections of the canal, at Great Falls and Little Falls, both utilized stone and wooden lock systems to raise and lower boats for the drastic elevation changes of the Potomac Gorge. The canal at Great Falls, in particular, was the most robust of the company’s construction projects. Today you can find a National Civil Engineering Landmark plaque near Lock 1, commemorating the achievement of labor put forth to complete this endeavor. The Canal Cut feature, Locks 2-5— where boats concluded their journey through this portion of canal and reentered the river—was constructed by blasting through 60 feet of solid rock to get to the river. This was the first time black powder was used for construction purposes. The Patowmack Canal was a budding nation’s first grand experiment using technology to harness nature in order to expand transportation, trade, and ultimately facilitate the economic growth of this new nation.

 
Here is an image of the stone ruins of an upstream portion of the Potomac Canal at Great Falls Park VA without water in it. This would be what visitors normally see when the visit the canal ruins here.
Here is an image of the stone ruins of an upstream portion of the Potomac Canal at Great Falls Park VA without water in it. This would be what visitors normally see when the visit the canal ruins here.

NPS Photo: A. Toure

The upriver portions of the canal system were constructed first and were built with mixed workforces of mainly unskilled laborers, indentured servants, and minimal enslaved laborers. That would change in 1792, one year after work began at Little Falls, there were over 100 men digging the canal bypass; among them still only 10 listed as enslaved labors. At the November 05, 1792 meeting, the Patowmack Company board authorized the renting up to 200 enslaved laborers at a cost of $60/year. However, by January 1794 they had only been able to rent 60 enslaved laborers for the coming year.

Additionally, it is well documented that by the time construction had begun at Great Falls and Little Falls the Patowmack Company was facing constant financial problems. Indentured servants would regularly flee work sites before their indenture-mortgages were paid; this compounded the losses to the company. For this reason the Patowmack Company’s board members continued authorizing supervisors to rent many numbers of enslaved laborers from neighboring plantations to complete the construction of the downstream canals closest to the new capital city.

Indeed, it was a mostly a force of enslaved laborers that accomplished what remains of the grandest Civil Engineering feat of the 18th century. In fact, as early as 1794 slavery had already become integral to the development of the growing capital not far from the construction at Great Falls and Little Falls. In that same year, there were already as many as forty-six slaves working on the construction of public buildings in the city when commissioners made a decision to hire one hundred more. Slave labor was used to construct the majority of our oldest and most important federal buildings, including the White House, U.S. capitol Building, and even the Washington Monument.

It was still a common practice during the late 1800s for slave owners in, then, Washington County, MD and Alexandria County, VA to rent out their workers; especially during off seasons for agriculture. The Patowmack Company Board members, who oftentimes held meetings in Georgetown taverns, were utilizing common labor practices when they authorized the hiring of hundreds of enslaved laborers to meet their construction and operational demands.

Last updated: September 1, 2019

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c/o Turkey Run Park
George Washington Memorial Parkway

McLean, VA 22101

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