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Chesapeake and Ohio Canal – Background

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal – I remember hearing about this as far back as elementary school.  I could only remember  small items about it however, and certainly only visited a few of its many sights when I grew up in the DC area.  Now that I have returned to the Potomac region, I have endeavored to see as many of the C&O Canal sights as I can.  I will share a series of posts including photos on a variety of C&O Canal subjects.

First, some background on the Canal.  The National Park Service maintains the 184.5 mile length of the old Canal, primarily serving as a hiking and jogging path.  A number of locations have been restored and offer additional attractions – for example boat tours, biking and hiking, camping, horseback riding, rentals of kayaks, canoes and bikes, and more.  Some adjacent attractions include Great Falls and the Angler’s Inn.  There are seven visitor centers (Georgetown, Great Falls, Brunswick, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, Hancock, and Cumberland) although not all are open now given the US Govt financial situation.  Only a limited portion of the canal still holds water.

George Washington initially envisioned a canal along the Potomac River from Washington DC to the Ohio Valley, and in 1785 the Potowmack Company formed to build the canal.  Apparently they weren’t very successful.  Finally in 1828 President John Quincy Adams initiated a new canal construction project starting at Little Falls, just west of Washington DC.  Also known as “the Grand Old Ditch”, construction stopped on the C&O canal when it reached Cumberland MD 22 years and approximately 185 miles later.  The last commercial use of the canal was in 1924.  Compare this to the Erie Canal which was about 363 miles long and took only 8 years to build.  The difference in construction time resulted from labor problems, limited finances and cost overruns, and highly rocky terrain.  The nearly parallel development of railroads in the US soon forced the C&O, like most other canal systems in the US, the shutdown.

I thought a canal included a channel of water punctuated by a series of locks.  I’ve since learned there are many other structures which form a functioning canal system, including

  • Lift Locks – raised or lowered boats much like an elevator
  • Lock Houses – located next to locks; the lock keeper and his family lived inside with the lock keeper operating the lock as needed
  • Feeder Dams – built on the Potomac River, they supplied water to the canal
  • Waste Weirs – diverted excess canal water back to the Potomac River, usually located near a dam
  • Culverts – diverted excess canal water under the towpath
  • The Paw Paw Tunnel – the only tunnel built on the canal

In 1998, the C&O Canal National Historic Park was dedicated to Justice William O. Douglas, who was a dedicated environmentalist.

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Mark Bobb

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