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View of the canal at Georgetown
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is one of the most intact and impressive survivals of the American canal-building era. The C&O Canal is unique in that it remains virtually unbroken and without substantial modification affecting its original character for its entire length of 185 miles.

The C&O Company was chartered in 1825 to construct a shipping canal connecting tidewater on the Potomac River in DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, thereby providing an economical trade route between the eastern seaboard and the trans-Allegheny West. The company acquired the rights of the Potomac Company, formed by George Washington and associates to improve navigation on the Potomac. That venture had attempted to achieve its objective by deepening the channel and cutting skirting canals around impassible rapids, but the flow of the river proved too erratic to make these measures successful. This experience led C&O promoters to adopt plans for a separate canal paralleling the river. President John Quincy Adams turned the first spadeful of earth in ceremonies at Little Falls, Maryland, on July 4, 1828. On the same day, construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad westward from Baltimore was begun-a move that would have significant implications for the ultimate fate of the canal and the canal era generally.

From the start, numerous difficulties retarded the progress of the canal construction. An acute labor shortage forced the company to campaign for workers from other states. Numerous disputes arose with landowners that resisted efforts to purchase the right-of-way. Between 1842 and 1847, construction was at a standstill. The canal was finally completed to Cumberland, Maryland, in 1850, bringing the total cost of the project to over $11 million.

During the years following the Civil War, the coal trade increased rapidly until in 1871, the peak year, some 850,000 tons were carried down the canal. During these few profitable years more than 500 boats were in frequent operation on the canal.


View of the canal at Georgetown
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
In the late 1870s the canal trade began to decline as many of the Allegheny coal operators began to ship over the B&O Railroad, the canal's greatest competitor. This development, together with the effects of the nationwide economic depression in the mid-1870s and major floods in 1877 and 1886, again put a severe strain on the finances. In 1889 an enormous flood forced the canal company into receivership, and the B&O Railroad emerged as the majority owner of the company's bonds. In 1924, by which time the railroad had captured almost all of the carrying trade, another damaging flood struck. This time the repairs necessary to resume operation were not made, and the active era of the canal came to an end.

In 1938 the railroad, hurt by the Depression, sold the entire canal to the United States government, and the canal was placed under the National Park Service. In 1961, President Eisenhower proclaimed it a national monument. An act of Congress in 1971 authorized the acquisition of additional land and establishment of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

The canal survives as an excellent illustration of 19th-century canal-building technology. The magnitude of the engineering achievement is exemplified by the length of the canal, its 74 lift locks to accommodate a rise of 605 feet, the 11 stone aqueducts spanning the major Potomac tributaries, 7 dams supplying water to the canal, hundreds of culverts carrying roads and streams beneath the canal, and a 3,117-foot tunnel carrying the canal through a large shale rock formation.

The C&O Canal runs along the Potomac River west from Rock Creek The Chesapeake and Ohio National Historical Park is located along the C&O Canal from Rock Creek Park to the DC boundary and extends into Maryland. The park is open during all daylight hours. Some of the park's five visitor centers operate on a seasonal schedule

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is the subject of an online lesson plan produced by Teaching with Historic Places, a National Park Service program that offers classroom-ready lesson plans on properties listed in the National Register. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

 

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