The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

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Along the C&O Canal - circa 1888

Although no part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was located in West Virginia, it should be considered an early transportation system of West Virginia. The C&O Canal exerted a great influence upon the trade of the eastern part of the state, especially the counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, and Mineral, all of which were located along the canal's route.

Washington's "Route to the West"

George Washington, as early as 1754, dreamed of a link via the Potomac to the Ohio River, which would provide a strategic and commercial link with the Eastern Shores. The Revoluntionary War caused these plans to be delayed until 1785, when Washington secured passage in the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland of acts to help organize a company that would undertake the work needed to make the Potomac navigable. Soon afterwards, Washington was elected president of the Patowmack Company, a position he held until he resigned in 1789 to accept the presidency of the United States.

The Potomac Company

Work on the locks, and the clearing of the river progressed slowly, partly due to labor shortages. It required 17 years (1785-1802) to bring the work near completion. In 1802, five canals were completed: around Little Falls, on the Maryland side; around Great Falls on the Virginia side; around Seneca Falls, and two canals at Harpers Ferry. This began the precedent both for trade on the Potomac, and for man made improvements that reached their height in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

The Potomac Company was not, however, a great success. More than $500,000 was spent on the project, yet the removal of obstructions for navigation was not completed and the boating season was limited to periods of high water, typically no more than two months a year.

In 1821, a joint committee appointed by the Virginia and Maryland legislatures recommended that the Potomac Company's charter should be revoked, and in 1822 recommended the building a complete canal system. In June of 1828, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company was organized.

Building the C&O Canal

On May 28, 1827, Congress appropriated $1,000,000 towards the construction of a canal to connect Washington, DC with the Ohio River at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (PA) via a connection would be made with the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal. The length of the route, as proposed, was 341 miles in length.

On July 4th, 1828, the building of the C&O canel was begun, the first spadeful being turned by President John Quincy Adams, during a ceremony at Little Falls. Ironically, on that same day the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) was begun, a rail line that was to run parallel with the canal and ultimately contribute to its failure.

Hundreds of laborers were employed for a number of years on the massive canal project. Sections of the canal were opened as they were completed. The canal was completed from Georgetown to Seneca in 1831, to Harpers Ferry in 1833, and to a point near Hancock in 1839.

In 1838, the laborers on the canal quit work and marched from Hancock, Maryland (MD) toward Old Town, causing the "terrorized" inhabitants of the neighboring region to take measures for defense by a request upon the governor for arms. This is claimed to be the first labor revolt to take place in what is now West Virginia.

Completion of the Canal

The great waterway from the mountains at Cumberland, MD, to Alexandria, VA, below Washington, DC, was formally opened for traffic on October 10, 1850. By June 13, 1850, the canal was completed to the head of navigation at Cumberland, MD. The canal's extension to Pittsburg, PA was never completed.

Although navigation on the canal was suspended during the winter, causing much produce to accumulate at Williamsport, business was brisk at other seasons. Within the week before April 22, 1854, 63 boats, carrying 6660 tons, left Cumberland for Alexandria, VA.

As the decades passed and technology advanced, the canal system experienced more and more difficultly in completing with the railroads, and was finally closed in 1924. The canal was purchased by the Federal government in 1938, eventually becoming Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 1971.

Additional Information

More information about the political and economic factors of the era, and the reasons for why the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and other canals of Virginia were built.