Lesson Plan

The Building of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Canal boat on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 3 Standard 2B: The student understands the economic issues arising out of the Revolution.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

What were the economic and social effects of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal?


1. To describe the importance of George Washington's role in the building of a Potomac River canal;
2. To explain the role canals played in the early industrial economy of the nation;
3. To outline the effect the C & O Canal had on the Potomac River Valley;
4. To research forms of transportation used in the students' own communities in the early days of development.


Time Period: Early to Mid 19th Century
Topics: This lesson could be used in units on the early industrial period of American history and in courses on geography or science and technology. It will help students realize the role canals played in western expansion and in the evolution of transportation by focusing on the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.


Birds still sing from the trees, and the Potomac River continues to rumble as it rushes through the Great Falls. Other sounds from the past can be imagined if one stands quietly on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The shovels of immigrant workers scrape as they carve the canal out of the mountains and ridges along the river; hooves clop as the mules pull coal-laden boats down a crowded canal, their bells keeping beat with the footsteps of the small children who guide them; a brass lock horn blares and the shout "Heeeey Lock!" alerts a lock tender to an approaching boat; and voices murmur at nightfall as families tie up their boats after a long 16-hour day.

The rich history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, also known as the C & O Canal, is vividly portrayed at several sites along its 184.5-mile route, a route that today forms a beautiful national park along the Potomac River in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Giant trees shade a sandy towpath between the river and the old canal bed, visited by thousands of hikers, bikers, birders, and naturalists who enjoy the spectacular scenery of the park. If they pause long enough, they can also hear the voices of those who lived and worked along the canal during an important era in American history.

Lesson Hook/Preview

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was an artificial waterway constructed along the Potomac River. Canal construction began in 1828 and was completed in 1850. The canal came after 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. It never made it that far. Rough terrain, problems with acquiring a right-of-way, labor shortages, and too little capital constantly delayed work. By the time the canal reached Cumberland, Maryland, about half-way to the Ohio, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had decreased the need for a water route to the Ohio Valley. When the full canal opened in 1850, a boat traveling northwest from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland covered 184.5 miles and passed through 74 lift locks that elevated it 605 feet. The locks were enough to compensate for the Potomac's fall as the river flowed down to the bay. The C & O closed in 1924, but during its 75 years of operation it provided the Potomac River Valley a major commercial route.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Additional Resources

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
The C & O Canal NHP is a unit of the National Park System. The park's web pages provide a detailed history of the park, historical photographs, and information about visiting the park.

National Park Service Travel Itinerary
The National Park Service's Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary, "Washington, DC," provides information on places listed in the National Register for their association with the city's history, including C & O Canal National Historical Park.

C & O Canal Association
The C & O Canal Association was formed in the 1950s in an effort to preserve the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Today, the Association maintains its mission of protecting, and promoting the assets of the C & O Canal National Historic Park.

The Potomac Conservancy
The Potomac Conservancy offers information about ways to help protect the C & O Canal and the Potomac River.

National Canal Museum
The National Canal Museum offers more information about the canals role in American commerce and transportation.

North American Canals
The North American Canals website provides information about the history of canals through the United States, notices about upcoming events at various canals, and links to related sites.

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Last updated: March 12, 2020