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Putting It All Together

The C & O Canal was part of a grand vision of western expansion. Although it never fulfilled its goal of connecting the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, it did have a remarkable impact on the settlement and development of the Potomac River Valley. The canal was one of the nation's most ambitious 19th century industrial experiments, and it served its region well for nearly a century. The following activities will help students understand the impact of canals and other forms of transportation.

Activity 1: Living Beside a Canal
Ask students to imagine that they are a part of a family living in a small 19th-century community within sight of the canal. Have them write a letter to a relative who lives in another region and has never seen a canal or a canal boat. In the letter, they should describe the sight of boats passing along the canal and explain the benefits the canal has brought to their community.

Most school or public libraries have works on canals that students might wish to use. Especially helpful are Elizabeth Kyle, Home on the Canal (Cabin John, Md., and Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1983), which contains the memories of men and women who lived and worked on the C & O Canal; and Harry Sinclair Drago, Canal Days in America (New York: Bramhall House, 1972), which discusses most of the major canals constructed during the 18th century.

Activity 2: Canals or Railroads?
It is July 4, 1828, at Little Falls, Maryland. President John Quincy Adams will shovel earth to signal construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In Baltimore, Maryland, Charles Carroll will break ground for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Both gentlemen have the same goal of reaching the Ohio River Valley for trade. Have the students pretend that they are financiers living in the early 1820s and are eager to invest in improved transportation. They should decide whether to put their money in canals or railroads, then write a letter to their board of directors justifying their choice.

Activity 3: Transportation and the Local Community
Have the students investigate the early transportation systems of their own community. Most of America depended on horse or oxen and wagons to carry goods and agricultural products before canals and railroads were built. Have the students work alone or in groups to research the following questions (and others they may pose):

  • How long were wagons used in their region?
  • Where, when, and how did roads begin to be "improved"?
  • When was the first canal or railroad serving the community built? With which market cities were they connected?
  • How did improved transportation change the local economy? Have the students present the results of their research to the entire class.

 

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