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Dreams of Empire: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal October 2, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in Travel Dispatches.

I have just returned from a week long bike ride that took me from Washington, DC to just outside Pittsburgh, PA. The first 184 mile of this ride was mostly along the C&O Canal towpath, a lunatic idea that actually bore some fruit, supported by American hubris and 19th century technology.

The idea of a commercial route linking the fertile Ohio River Valley with the Eastern Seaboard was the dream of many an early entrepreneur, but the canal version received a particularly powerful boost from none other than George Washington Himself. As a young man (19), Washington had crossed the Appalachian Mountains in early skirmishes of the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), had seen the possibilities of the land there, and acquired more the 30,000 acres by 1772.

Young Washington strikes a heroic pose in Cumberland, MD

The Revolutionary War and the two terms as the nation’s first president diverted His attention somewhat, but Washington founded the Patowmack Company in 1785 in order to develop what He considered to be the most viable route to the west. There were some slight obstacles to using the river, namely cataracts and a mountain range, but wasn’t this the 18th century when all things were possible?  The reason that the nation’s capital was placed where it was on the Potomac was because 15 miles upstream flowed Great Falls, the first of these challenges.

A slight obstacle 15 miles upstream from Washington, DC

Given the technology of the times, the only way to bypass these was by building a series of locks and canals. Washington encouraged the use of the Potomac route by introducing a bill that established a federal armory upstream at Harper’s Ferry. (The Civil War battle of Antietem revealed just how disastrous this location would prove, but that catastrophe lay in the future.) Washington died in 1799, but the locks at Great Falls were opened in 1802, and the river was now navigable up to Seneca Falls.

So far so good. However, New York and Pennsylvania were proceeding with their plans to build canals to the lands beyond the mountains. (The Erie Canal opened in 1825.) Alarmed by the competition, influential leaders in the mid-Atlantic region convened a convention in 1823 and pushed the unfeasible idea of a canal running either from Baltimore or Georgetown (a “suburb” of DC) through the Cumberland Gap to the westward running rivers that would end up at the Ohio River. When Georgetown won out as the canal’s starting point, Baltimore, in a fit of pique, funded the equally speculative idea of a railroad line linking their city with the Ohio River Valley, the birth of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

As a matter of fact, both projects broke ground on exactly the same day: July 4, 1828.

When the U.S. Board of Engineers priced the C&O project at a staggering $22 million, the shocked canal lobbyists ordered a second survey which reduced the estimate by almost half. In a remarkable foreshadowing of defense contracting practices, this was . . . optimistic. The C&O Canal took 22 years to complete, included 11 hand-hewn stone aqueducts, 74 locks, each with its own lock keeper’s house, and almost 13,000 other structures (i.e., bridges, flumes, waste weirs). The most ambitious of these was the Paw Paw Tunnel a 3,118-foot boondoggle that took 12 years to build, bankrupted its subcontractor, and almost put the C&O Canal Company out of business. It’s pretty cool to walk through, however.  It had poured the night before (much of the weather sucked during our ride), which created spectacular waterfalls at the entrance.

Southern entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel

When the Canal finally opened up to Cumberland in 1850, the railroad had beat it there by 8 years. However, railroad engines were still weak affairs, and trains couldn’t haul nearly as much as canal boats, so the C&O Canal Company had that advantage. They had the disadvantages of dry spells, floods, and winter freezes, however.

Nonetheless, after the Civil War, the Canal began to make money, peaking at 1/2 million in tolls in 1874, carrying mostly coal. Railroad technology continued to improve, however, and the Canal lost business to the B&O Railroad, which was able to carry goods to Baltimore’s deep water harbor. The C&O Canal Company slid toward bankruptcy and a devastating flood in 1899 would have halted operations permanently, but the B&O Railroad had purchased the canal in order to prevent another railroad from building on its right-of- way. The deal was, however, that the railroad (now “transportation”) company had to keep the canal open and running “at a profit.” This fiction was put to an end by another flood in 1924. The Canal went from artificial life support to suspended animation. And there is stayed until the federal government acquired it in exchange for collateral and debt forgiveness in 1938.

For the next two decades, the government tried to figure out what to do with this property. Of course a dam was proposed, then a parkway along the lines of the Blue Ridge highway. Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court led a famous 1954 walk on the towpath to call for the canal’s conservation. Finally in 1971 the C&O was designated a National Historic Park in a bill signed by the Great Satan of the time, President Nixon.

It took our bike tour 4 days to follow the Canal towpath from Georgetown to Cumberland. The weather was often wet but not cold: green and lush landscapes, many beautiful water views of the canal and the Potomac. Not all of the canal had water in it, but there were many sections that carried the peacefulness of elongated pools. Some canoeing, some fishing, biking, historical structures galore, and the consistent crunch of the towpath. Because of the unseasonably wet weather, we biked through many puddles. My rental bike had no fenders, so staying clean was simply not an option.  Fun . . . dirty fun.

Mud tail



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