History of the C&O Canal

 History of C&O CanalIf you are planning to travel by bicycle the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, also known as the C&O Canal, you may want to read about its history in order to really appreciate the ride and understand what you will be biking through.  Rev Johannes Myors biked the C&O canal several times and it is one of his favorite route in the USA. In this article he gives an interesting summary of its history.


The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal, and occasionally referred to as the “Grand Old Ditch,” operated from 1831 until 1924. It parallels the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C. The total length of the canal is about 184.5 miles (300 km). The elevation change of 605 ft (185 m) was accommodated with 74 canal locks. Each of these manual locks could raise or lower a canalboat about 8 feet to the next level of the canal. This procedure which generally took about ten minutes.
The boats that plied the Canal made the trip from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown, Maryland in four or five days and typically carried cargoes of coal, flour or grain. Teams of two or three mules worked six hour shifts. The canalboats generally had crews of five. These crews were often all members of the same family. If there were young children living aboard the boats, they would be tethered to the boat to prevent accidents.
larger map of CO

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After the American Revolutionary War, George Washington was the chief advocate of using waterways to connect the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. In 1785, Washington founded the “Potowmack Company” to make navigability improvements to the Potomac River. The Patowmack Company built a number of skirting canals around the major falls including the Patowmack Canal in Virginia. When completed, the canal system allowed boats and rafts to float downstream towards Georgetown. Going upstream was a bit harder. Slim boats could be slowly poled upriver. The completion of the Erie Canal worried southern traders that their business might be threatened by the northern canal. Plans for a canal linking the Ohio and Chesapeake were drawn up as early as 1820.

In 1824, the holdings of the Patowmack Company were ceded to the Chesapeake and Ohio Company. Benjamin Wright, formerly Chief Engineer of the Erie Canal, was named Chief Engineer of this new effort. Construction began on July 4, 1828 with a groundbreaking ceremony by President John Quincy Adams.

The narrow strip of available land along the Potomac River from Point of Rocks, Marland to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia caused a legal battle between the C&O Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). In 1828, both sought to exclude the other from its use. Following a Maryland state court battle that involved Daniel Webster and Roger B. Taney, the companies later compromised to allow the sharing of the right of way.

The canal initially connected to the Potomac River on the east side of Georgetown by joining Rock Creek east of Lock 1, 0.3 miles (0.5 km) upstream of the Tidewater Lock, whose remnants still exist to the west of the mouth of the creek. In 1831, the first section opened from Georgetown to Seneca, Maryland. In 1833, the canal opened to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and at the Georgetown end it was extended 1.5 miles (2.4 km) eastward to Tiber Creek, near the western terminus of the Washington City Canal. A lock keeper’s house at the eastern end of this “Washington Branch” of the C&O Canal remains at the southwest corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C.

To build the canal, the C&O Canal Company utilized a total of 74 lift locks that raised the canal from sea level at Georgetown to 610 feet (190 m) at Cumberland. Eleven stone aqueducts were built to carry the canal over the Potomac’s tributaries. In addition, seven dams were built to supply water to the canal. Also built were waste weirs to control water flow and 200 culverts to carry roads and streams underneath the canal. An assortment of lockhouses, bridges, and stop gates were also constructed along the canal’s path.

One of the most impressive engineering features of the canal is the Paw Paw Tunnel. The tunnel runs for 3,118 feet (950 m) under a mountain. Built to save six miles (10 km) of construction around the obstacle, the 3/4-mile tunnel used over six million bricks. The tunnel took almost twelve years to build. In the end, the tunnel was only wide enough for single lane traffic.

In 1836, the canal was used as a Star Route for the carriage of mails from Georgetown, Marlyand to Shepherdstown, Maryland using canal packets. The contract was held by Albert Humrickhouse at $1,000 per annum for a daily service of 72 book miles. The canal approached Hancock, Maryland by 1839. In 1843, the Potomac Aqueduct Bridge was constructed near the present-day Key Bridge to connect the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to the Alexandria Canal which led to Alexandria, Virginia. By the time the canal reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1850, it had already been rendered obsolete. Cost overuns, labor problems, and rocky terraign delayed the building of the canal. The B&O Railroad had reached Cumberland, Marland eight years previously in 1842. Debt-ridden, the company dropped its plan to continue construction of the next 180 miles (290 km) of the canal into the Ohio valley.

The canal did make some profits in the 1870’s but at the end of the next decade a massive flood caused the Canal Company to go into receivership to its rival the B & O Railroad. The railroad operated the Canal for several decades until another devastating flood in 1924. At that time, the Canal was closed for good.

In 1938, the abandoned canal was obtained from the B&O Railroad by the United States in exchange for a loan from the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The government planned to restore it as a recreation area. Although the lower 22 miles (35 km) of the canal were repaired and rewatered, the project was halted when the United States entered World War II and resources were needed elsewhere.

After the war, Congress expressed interest in developing the canal and towpath as a parkway. The canal was acquired by the Federal Government for $2 million and put in the domain of the National Park Service. There was an idea of turning the canal over to automobiles but this was opposed by some. The opponents to the automobile idea included United States Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas who reviled the thought of the destruction of the beautiful river corridor. He challenged the editor of the Washington Post, who had come out in favor of the proposed construction, to walk the entire towpath and then decide whether he still thought the road project idea was a good one. In March 1954, Douglas led an eight-day hike of the towpath from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C. Although 58 people participated in one part of the hike or another, only nine men, including Douglas, hiked the full 184.5 miles (297 km). Popular response to and press coverage of the hike turned the tide against the parkway idea. On January 8, 1971, the canal was designated a National Historical Park.

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Rev Johannes Myors
In 2010: Cycled 17 years across the USA, including 16 coast to coast crossings!

About Stephane Marchiori

Owner of
Bike touring since 2003, including:
a 5-Year Bicycle Journey Around The World!

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