Credit: Photo credit: C&O Canal Old Picture Album/T.F. Hahn

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, also known as the “Grand Old Ditch,” is a marvel of 19th-century engineering that stretches nearly 185 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. It is the fourth most visited National Historical Park in the country, entertaining more than 3 million patrons a year. Its story, both as a waterway and a park, is as turbulent as the Great Falls of the Potomac River, a tale that begins with the 37 miles of canal in Montgomery County.

On July 4, 1828, a crush of people gathered near the Little Falls Branch of the Potomac River, not far from the present neighborhood of Brookmont, to watch President John Quincy Adams turn the first spade of earth for what was being called “one of the greatest works yet contemplated”—the C&O Canal.

“To subdue the earth is preeminently the purpose of the undertaking,” the president intoned, “to the accomplishment of which the first stroke of the spade is now to be struck.” Adams thrust the ceremonial spade into the ground. He hit a root. He tried again to sink the spade, but with no better success. He stripped off his coat and got down to serious business as onlookers shouted encouragement until he finally broke through. It was a fitting beginning to an undertaking that would be frustrated by many obstacles over the next 96 years and become one of the most ill-fated transportation projects in the nation’s early history.

Others had tried to create a waterway connecting Washington to points west. By 1802, the Potomac Company, first headed by George Washington in the 1780s, had made the Potomac River navigable far upstream by building a series of canals, locks and channels around impassable sections. A canal on the Virginia side skirted Great Falls; another on the Maryland side bypassed Little Falls. But the C&O Canal, under the direction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, which took over the assets of the old Potomac Company, was an even broader vision—a man-made channel running more than 300miles from Washington to just below Pittsburgh. The canal would create an easy way to transport the bounty of the Ohio Valley to Eastern markets. The C&O Canal Company was a publicly chartered corporation initially funded by $3.6 million raised from private and public sources. The federal government, the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the cities of Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., were heavy investors, all hoping for a big return in increased trade and more jobs.

Finding workers to build the canal proved difficult from the outset, so the canal directors went overseas and enticed poor laborers—“the wretched surplus population,” the canal president called them—with the promise of “meat three times a day, plenty of bread and vegetables, with a reasonable allowance of liquor and 10 or 12 dollars a month for wages.” By 1830, more than 1,000 laborers, mostly Irish imports, were at work on the section of the canal below Harpers Ferry, W.Va. They spent their days clawing a 60-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep trench out of the forest, often digging knee-deep in pestilent water teeming with mosquitoes and disease. Hundreds would die from cholera, tuberculosis, dysentery and accidents and be summarily buried along the way in now long-forgotten graves.

By November of 1830, the first section of the canal was opened from Lock 23, below Seneca Creek near its confluence with the Potomac River, south to Little Falls, with boats bound for Georgetown hauling mostly grain and flour from area farmers. It would be another 20 years before the northern reaches were completed. Labor unrest—workers would riot 10 times in 10 years—financial woes and lawsuits over property rights impeded progress, even shutting down construction for years. The canal company grossly underestimated the cost and repeatedly looked to the Maryland legislature for a bailout. By the late 1830s, in order to keep construction flowing, the state had loaned the canal company almost $4 million and had authorized the sale of more than $2.5 million in bonds—a total far beyond the $4.5 million projected to finish the canal. The cost of building ultimately exceeded $11 million. The state’s heavy investments eventually gave it control of the project.

By the time the builders reached Cumberland, 22 years after Adams had turned the first spade, the canal company was inextricably in debt. The tolls collected from boats carrying lumber, stone, grain, flour, whiskey and more never covered the canal’s operating costs. And as the canal limped into town in 1850, it was greeted by even more bad news: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The same day that Adams had broken ground for the canal—July 4, 1828—Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, presided over the laying of the cornerstone for the B&O Railroad near Gwynns Falls, two miles outside of Baltimore. Instantly, the canal and the railroad became contentious rivals. The rail builders scoffed at the ditch-diggers: The railroad “will surely supersede canals as effectually as canals have superseded turnpike roads,” they predicted. The canal backers countered: “A single horse of moderate size and strength, drawing 512 barrels of flour in a heavy boat with apparent ease…is calculated of itself to countervail the numerous theories of the utility of railroads.”

But the railroad triumphed in the race west, reaching Cumberland eight years before the canal, then leaving the canal far behind as it crossed the Alleghenies, arriving in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1853.Out of money and motivation, the canal builders stopped at Cumberland, almost 185 miles from Washington, D.C., and more than 100 miles from their goal of the Ohio River Valley.

Life along the canal

The railroad may have made the C&O obsolete before it was finished—and investors may never have seen a dime in return—but the canal nonetheless went on carrying freight for 74 years, employing hundreds of workers on land and water. Lockkeepers, quartered in company-built houses sitting nearly atop the stone locks, operated the giant wooden gates that trapped and released water. Whole families joined in the work, and the job became an unwritten inheritance, with widows often assuming the duties, a situation that irked canal officials. “It is very plain that they are not as competent as men,” one superintendent remarked. What stopped the canal from removing the female lockkeepers? The cost. The directors found that they could pay women less than men for performing the same tasks.

For boatmen, life came at the pace of a mule at the towrope’s end—“movement without motion” as one traveler described the ride. Home was a small cabin at the boat’s stern, sometimes barely 12 feet square, with a small stove in a kitchen area and beds tucked into a corner. Families spent their entire lives onboard, coming onto land just for visits and provisions.

It was a three-or four-day journey from Cumberland to Georgetown, the tasks monotonous but ceaseless: driving the mules, guiding the tiller, moving day and night, stopping only for locks to open and close. Sometimes boatmen waited days for cargo to be unloaded, then turned back for another load. Ice shut down the canal from December through March every year, putting them out of work. Lockkeepers, on the other hand, were paid a yearly salary regardless of whether the boats were running.

But more than cold weather, it was flooding that halted canal traffic and the boatmen’s livelihoods. The original engineers believed that their system could withstand a periodically swollen Potomac River. What they could not predict was the ferocity of storms to come. The first big storm after the canal’s completion occurred in 1852, shutting down operations for three months while repairs were made. Every decade thereafter brought devastation and closure. In 1889, a massive rainstorm—the same system that caused the dam above Johnstown, Pa., to collapse, killing 2,200 people—ravaged the canal so severely that the directors declared it finished. Miles of embankments were swept away and most of the locks were damaged. As The New York Times put it, “the canal and Potomac River for long distances are practically one body of water.” Repair estimates ranged up to $1 million.“I don’t see what the company can do,” C&O Canal Company Treasurer Spencer Watkins lamented. “It certainly can’t fix the canal.”