The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 2

August, 1939


By Edwin L. Green, Jr.,
Wildlife Division,

The famous old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that runs from Washington, D. C., to Cumberland, Maryland, may be of greater service as a recreational area than it ever was for the transport of freight and passengers.

Boating, canoeing and hiking in summer, ice-skating when winter conditions permit -- and good fishing in season -- all these outdoor leisure time activities will beckon to visitors as a result of the restoration and development program now being carried forward by the National Park Service along sections of the historic waterway where, for nearly 100 years, patient mules plodded the picturesque Maryland tow-paths in the van of quaint craft of commerce and pleasure.

Commercial possibilities of the canal appeared limitless when it first was conceived by George Washington, who realized the necessity for trade connections between the progressive settlements of the Potomac Valley and the resources of the Ohio country. As the Erie contributed so substantially to the growth of New York City, so might the Chesapeake and Ohio have built Washington, Alexandria and other cities into centers of industry and distribution. The C. & O. never attained its goal, however, for soon after the canal was begun, in 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was completed and developed as a main traffic artery to the Ohio Valley. The waterway was not extended beyond Cumberland, which it reached in 1850, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, after flourishing during the 1870's did not maintain itself following 1924 when a flood destroyed a part of the dykes.

map of C. and O. Canal
The Heavy Black Line Shows the Route of the Canal along the Maryland Side of the Potomac from Cumberland to the District of Columbia

Recreational planners recognized later that the canal embodied many features suited for the establishment of a unique recreational area at the doorstep of the nation's capital. Accordingly, as the C. & O. Canal Recreational Parkway, the area is now being developed by the Service. Fishing, which always has been important in the Potomac Valley, will be of major interest on the canal since water will cover most of the property. In the early 1850's there was a marked decrease in the Potomac in the number of fall fish, a species of chub. There was much discussion of the reason for it and Americans of that period, like those of today, disliked to admit that they had been taking too many fish. Someone decided that the small-mouth bass, a native of the Ohio and Mississippi drainage basin, would be an excellent fish for the Potomac. Many river people expressed the fear that the small-mouth would displace the fall fish. That is just what happened. Bass from the Monongahela and Ohio were carried over the B. & O. Railroad and dumped into the river near Cumberland. By 1870 they had established themselves while the fall fish became scarcer. It was in those days that the tavern at Great Falls was an important fishermen's headquarters.

During the time that the canal was operated commercially, it was customary to drain the water each fall at the beginning of cold weather. Great pools were left in the low places, trapping the fish. In earlier days the people of the surrounding country flocked to the pools armed with pitch-forks, sticks, spears, and all manner of nets. Large quantities of fish were taken for local consumption, but even with this attack many fish remained although these usually suffocated under the winter ice which cut off the oxygen supply. At a later period the United States Bureau of Fisheries sent out crews of men each year to seine the trapped fish from the pools and return them to the river.

The decrease of fish in the Potomac became so acute as time passed that by 1880 the United States Fish Commission carried on experiments in the use of fish ladders. A series of them was arranged to aid shad in their migration at Great Falls. The remains of such a ladder are still to be found anchored in the tow-path dyke of the canal at that point.

The small-mouth bass typifies the requirements of fish. Spawning comes in the spring when the water reaches a temperature of 65 degrees. Just before the actual egg-laying the male builds a nest of gravel in water less than five feet deep. Turbidity affects the amount of light that will reach the nest and consequently determines its depth below the surface. If there is not enough light the fish seek shallower water or do not spawn; gravel also must be available. The male completes the nest and drives the female to it, attacking any intruder and removing all trash. The young fish hatch and hover around the nest at first. Later they stray to nearby cover, for after the hatching the parent turns cannibal.


Reputedly favored by George Washington as early as 1774, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was incorporated by the Virginia Assembly in 1823 and approved by the state of Maryland and the United States government. Construction was begun in 1828, traffic started to flow in 1830, boats reached Cumberland by 1850, the peak of usefulness was recorded in the 1870-1880 decade, and commercial operation ceased in 1924---after 94 years---when floods inflicted serious damage to portions of the costly dyke system. The 186-mile waterway, designed originally to pierce the Alleghenies and bring the Ohio Valley nearer to the Atlantic seaboard, reaches from the Potomac tidewater to Cumberland (following the Maryland bank of the river), traverses a tunnel, several aqueducts and numerous locks, and gains an elevation of more than 600 feet. It was purchased by the federal government for $2,000,000. Development operations now are concentrated on the Georgetown-Seneca section.

The canal was built originally to a width of 60 feet, a bottom width of 40 feet, and a depth of 6 feet. This leaves no shallow water. Fortunately, it was easier and cheaper for the builders to allow the canal to flood adjoining lands. These shallow areas are few in number but more littoral space is to be provided so that there will be a large production of semi-microscopic animals and plants that supply food for the forage minnows which, in turn, are the main food of the sport fish. The problem of restoring fish and producing a reasonable amount of sport fishing is complicated by variable conditions that, in many cases, are beyond immediate control. The liquid medium in which fish live demands that they be specialized to exist. The water must carry sufficient oxygen, an element easily eliminated by pollution. Fish cannot accommodate themselves to sudden changes in temperature, or the amounts of dissolved air gases, or acid and alkaline conditions. Water distributes and transports poisons more thoroughly than does air so that, in many cases, only minute doses are lethal to fish. Mud is highly detrimental in that it decreases the oxygen supply, reduces the transparency of the water, and suffocates the eggs and vegetation. Altogether, when biologists predict for fish they remember that they are dealing with life as affected by numerous conditions. As a basis for fish man agement policies a research program is under way. It includes a study of the growth rates of fish existing in parts of the canal that now contain water, examinations of the types of food consumed, and chemical analyses of the water. The Bureau of Fisheries is cooperating with the Service in these endeavors.

It is hoped that the canal restoration, when complete, will decrease the fishing on many of the streams within driving distance of Washington. The past use of these has been so heavy that even with constant stocking it is virtually impossible to catch a fish at the end of the season unless it has just been released. In fact, fishing in the vicinity of the metropolitan areas has degenerated, in many cases, to catching today the fish stocked last night. There is a physical limit, of course, to the number of fish the canal will support, but if conditions are ideal the maximum number will be maintained and the historic artery, once heavily traveled by boat and barge, will perform a new service by providing a recreational pursuit long treasured by man.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002