The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 3

March, 1940

A Survival of an Era

Assistant Historical Technician

The first half of the nineteenth century was the period in American history which saw the inception of the significant movement for internal improvement and national expansion of the new republic. The era was one of vast political, economic and social change. Conservative political and economic forces of the older East, which had dominated the post-Revolutionary period of governmental and economic experimentation, now began to give way before the spirit and influence of the expanding frontier during the early decades of the new century. Especially after the War of 1812 did the American mind turn from the perfecting of political and governmental organization to the development of national resources.

Opening the path for expansion was the democratic governmental philosophy of Jefferson, although its early progress was deterred temporarily by the constitutional scruples of his successors, Madison and Monroe. Popular and Congressional support of the nationalistic policies of Calhoun and Clay, however, soon defined and established the ephemeral American System, which included internal improvements as one of its cardinal features. Election of John Quincy Adams, an ardent disciple of that system, brought immediate federal aid to the movement and launched it upon the great period of ante-bellum activity.

The gravest national problem confronting the young nation, as the nineteenth century opened was the conquest of the natural Appalachian barrier which lay between the commercially established east and the frontier resources of the undeveloped west. To link these two regions into a national system of enduring growth, vast improvement in the transportation facilities was urgently necessary. Jefferson, in 1806, first authorized federal aid for the opening of the west when he allotted money for building a national highway across the Alleghenies. The National or Cumberland Road, an improved thoroughfare from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling on the Ohio, was completed by 1817.

Following this precedent and in order to make an aggressive bid for the trade moving across the Alleghenies on the National Road, Maryland soon opened an extensive system of state turnpikes which connected with the National Road and radiated to the seaboard. Pennsylvania previously had invested millions in support of a state road system constructed westward across the Alleghenies and converging on Pittsburgh. As a result, she was enjoying by 1821 an almost complete monopoly of overland western traffic between the Atlantic and the Mississippi north of the Potomac.

lock house

area map
Typical of the lock houses built on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal between 1828 and 1837 is that at Lock 18, Great Falls, Maryland, which is shown in the photograph. The route of the canal is indicated by the heavy black line on the map.

The vigorous impulse given to the eastern and western movement of men and materials by the opening of the road systems led the country to search for and develop an even more economical means of transportation. The feeling swept the country in the early 1820's that water transport, either by canal or by improved river navigation, was vastly superior to the turnpike systems. Lending chief support to this contention was the phenomenal success of the Erie Canal, begun in 1817 and opened for its entire length in 1825. Its influence was significant in providing an economical water route between the western and lake region and the eastern seaboard. It opened the way for heavy western emigration and provided an outlet in the east for the rich raw materials of the west. Perhaps its most decided influence was the development of a dominating western trading route through New York's Mohawk Valley at the expense of Pennsylvania and Maryland, which previously had monopolized western trade by their geographic control of the road systems leading through the old Potomac and trans-Allegheny routes.

The record of the third decade of the nineteenth century in fostering internal improvements, consisting primarily of canal construction, is impressive. From 1825 to 1828, under the administration of John Quincy Adams, several canal companies, including the Chesapeake and Ohio, received direct federal support in the form of government subscriptions to their stock. In July, 1826, Pennsylvania accepted the Erie's challenge of her virtual control of the western trade route and began construction of a pretentious state system of canals leading toward the Ohio and its tributaries. By 1830 more than 3,000 miles of canals were completed or well advanced in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, while additional hundreds of miles of canals were under way in these states, the south and the mid-west.

As the canal fever spread throughout the country the cry went up for increasing federal appropriations. At the height of the era, however, Andrew Jackson provided an effective check to the uncontrolled expansion of the movement at the expense of the federal government. In 1830 his repeated vetoes of federal appropriations for canal construction, on the ground that it was unconstitutional to expend such funds for works of a local rather than national character, assured that further canals would be built only by state or private enterprise.1

The ultimate decline of the canal system of internal improvements was already under way when Baltimore reluctantly embarked upon her desperate effort to obtain a water route to the west. Before 1825 her commercial position on the eastern seaboard had rivaled closely that of New York and Philadelphia, due mainly to her connections with the Maryland state road system leading to the Cumberland Road and the western trade. Unfortunately Baltimore was not situated geographically to command a western water route, having no connecting river valley to develop. Confronted with New York's growing advantage via the Erie, and Philadelphia's imminent threat promised by the Pennsylvania state canal system, Baltimore was forced either to give tentative support to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal project or to fail entirely in the struggle for a waterway to the western trade.

C & O Canal
Typical Section of Towpath on C. & O. Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio was proposed as a continuous canal along the old Potomac and trans-Allegheny trade route to the Ohio. It was the direct economic heir of the old Potomac Company, which had attempted unsuccessfully from 1785 to 1819 to fulfill George Washington's life-long objective of developing a practical water route between east and west through the Potomac Valley. Strongly promoted in 1823 by interested tidewater citizens of Virginia, the District of Columbia and western Maryland, who saw its tremendous commercial potentialities for the Potomac Valley, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company was not chartered by Maryland until 1825. Baltimore's powerful business and political interests had shown little enthusiasm for a project which would do more to benefit their rivals on the lower Potomac, but they were placated by the reservation providing for the building of a lateral branch canal to serve Baltimore.

Construction was begun on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on July 4, 1828, and on the same day in Baltimore was inaugurated the building of a new mode of transportation, one destined to be the chief competitor of the canal system, to cause its ultimate decline, and finally to displace it. For, by then supporting the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Baltimore showed her determination to maintain her position in the intense competition for the western trade even though it be through an untried experiment. Launched with $3,000,000 capital stock, one-third of which was the federal government's sole aid to the company, the Chesapeake and Ohio undertaking languished for want of operating funds, after encountering construction difficulties and experiencing a bitter four-year right-of-way controversy with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. When, as a result of this situation, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was forced to resort to Maryland for financial aid, it was only following the pattern of most of the canals built in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, 1830-1840, after Jackson's inflexible stand. The lamentable feature of the internal improvement policy of that decade was that many states continued to build the waterways, even though it was becoming evident to discerning people that canals, if not obsolete, were at least outmoded.2

The four disastrous years from 1836 to 1840 mark the beginning of the end of the age of canals in America. Yet, at the very height of this era of speculation when the states were heavily overbonded and credit everywhere generally overextended, Maryland, now thoroughly alarmed for the prosperity of Baltimore and the state, authorized in 1836 the floating of an $8,000,000 bond issue to finance a great system of internal improvements within her borders. Casting aside her scruples, Baltimore temporarily espoused the support of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, along with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and minor works. In addition to the $2,000,000 it had obtained from Maryland in 1835, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal now received $3,000,000. Despite the ill effects of the panic of 1837, Maryland was forced to make two other heavy loans to the canal, in 1839 and 1845, before the waterway could be completed to Cumberland in 1850. This city became its western terminus, though far short of its original goal across the Alleghenies.3

Unfortunately, the Chesapeake and Ohio did not provide an effective competitive trade route to the west. Although it had reached a vantage point for trans-Allegheny commerce by 1850, it was finished on the threshold of the decade between 1850 and 1860 which saw the virtual end of the canal era in the United States. The peak of canal boating had marked the end of the pre-machine age in transportation. With the perfection of the steamboat, and the rapid introduction of the railway locomotive in this era, the industrial revolution in transportation was complete. As a consequence, the simple labor of man and beast in canal transportation became outmoded and within a few decades after the Civil War the disappearing network of American canals had been completely replaced by faster and better methods. The factor of speed had been important in hastening the downfall of the canal system.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal fittingly serves today as an example and survival of the American canal era. Primarily, this undertaking was the economic heir to the Potomac Company's pioneer efforts to open a water route to the western trade through the Potomac Valley. As a political issue in Maryland, it developed into a state canal project. Then it became a temporary agency of Baltimore's desperate attempt to maintain her commercial position on the eastern seaboard by developing a western water route to forestall the Erie Canal's growing monopoly of the western trade. The construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio fits significantly into the ante-bellum struggle of the lower eastern seaboard to wrest control of the western trading route from the northern and eastern states.

The canal never attained any great measure of economic success but it afforded considerable benefit to the economic development of the Potomac Valley region. Ever cursed by lack of way trade, the canal did not reach the peak of its commercial development during the ante-bellum era, when its downstream traffic included only lumber, building stone, grain, flour, whiskey and some coal. Between 1860 and 1880, however, the waterway felt its heyday when the profitable coal-carrying trade reached its height on the canal, exerting a considerable influence on the intensive development of the George's Creek coal regions. The re-opening of the old Potomac route to the west by means of water transportation along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal blazed the way for the development of the pioneer east and west railway communication, via the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and contributed to the ultimate industrialization of the east.

While the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was not the longest, the most famous, or the most successful canal in our national history, today as one of the best preserved and least altered of our old canals, it is an unusual and significant example from that period of American economic growth known as the era of internal improvements. As historical physical remains safeguarded by the National Park Service, it illustrates uniquely the era of our early national expansion, the attempts to link the eastern seaboard with the western frontier, the development of our frontier resources, and the solidifying of national unity. The canal itself may be regarded as an important and picturesque physical document with its vari-colored stone locks, the sturdy brick and stone lockkeepers' houses, the grass-grown towpath, the winding water courses and abandoned stretches of sod-covered bed, all forming an eloquent historical exhibit of our great canal era.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Manuscript records and papers of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company in the Division of Interior Department Archives, The National Archives, Washington.

Secondary Sources

Corra Bacon-Foster, "Early Chapters in the Development of the Potomac Route to the West," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. XV, Washington, D. C., 1912.

Edward Channing, A History of the United States, Vol. V: The Period of Transition, 1815-1848, N. Y., The Macmillan Company, 1933.

Carl Russell Fish, The Rise of the Common Man, Vol. VI, A History of American Life, N. Y., The Macmillan Company, 1927.

Alvin F. Harlow, Old Towpaths: the Story or the American Canal Era, N. Y., D. Appleton & Co., 1926.

Archer B. Hulbert, "The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Pennsylvania Canal," The Great American Canals, Vol. I, in Historic Highways of America, Vol. 13, Cleveland, Ohio, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904.

William Macdonald, Jacksonian Democracy, 1829-1837, Vol. 15, The American Nation: A History, N. Y., Harper and Brothers, 1906.

John Bach McMaster, A History of the People of the United States, from the Revolution to the Civil War, Vols. V-VIII, N. Y., D. Appleton-Century, 1929-1936.

George Washington Ward, The Early Development of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Project. (Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Series XVII, Nos. 9-10-11), Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1899.

(1) Alvin J. Harlow, Old Towpaths: the Story of the American Canal Era (D. Appleton, New York, 1926),70-73.

(2) Ibid., 107-108.

(3) Ibid., 113-116.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002