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

Civil Engineering Marvel

Today, the most well preserved ruins of the Patowmack Canal, are here at Great Falls Park VA. This canal was not build with concrete or mortar, and time has taken its toll on the structures. Yet, the sharp corners of the drylayed stonework still reveal the undeniable precision 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 opened to traffic a year after construction finished, in 1802. Unfortunately, the Patowmack Company's experiment went bankrupt and transferred its charter to the C&O Canal in 1828; a failure. A shifted perspective in studying this canal’s history would reveal otherwise. It is actually the first evolutionary stage of America's transportation industry. The Patowmack Canal was the precursor for modern transportation advances such as: railroads, highways, interstates and more.

 
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

Washington's Dream Canal?

Over time, historians have refereed to this engineering marvel as, "George Washington's Canal," but he did not build it. Washington observed construction progress onsite many times over the years; as an overseer. His main role was president of the Patowmack Company, and to preside over and direct its business. This included authorizing renting hundreds of enslaved workers who constructed the canals.

Exploited labor forces built the infrastructure of this nation. Ironically, both the enslaved and indentured builders were considered "unskilled laborers." Yet, the innovations they built were cutting edge at the time.
 
Here is an image of the Great Falls Wing Dam at River Level 3.75
The wing dam at Great Falls was constructed with the same dredging technique as the upstream sections of the canal. Wooden Crates were made in the river and larger boulders were moved into them to clear a path and divert water to the canal.

NPS Photo: A. Touré

Demand for Slave Labor

The Patwomack Company's constant financial challenges caused labor to slow. When construction began at Great Falls and Little Falls the labor problems got worst. Indentured servants would run away, and blend into local communities. This would default their indenture-mortgages and compound the company's losses. This was the main reason company managers continued renting slaves. Local agricultural operations would often rent their field hands to the canal during the off season. The proximity of slave markets in Georgetown and Baltimore hightened the demand for enslaved labor to build the infastructure growing in and around the capital city.

Last updated: January 30, 2020

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Mailing Address:

Great Falls Park
c/o Turkey Run Park
George Washington Memorial Parkway

McLean, VA 22101

Phone:

(703) 757-3101
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