The C&O Canal in Montgomery County

 

For almost two centuries, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal has played an important role in Montgomery County’s economic and social development.  Generations have worked, lived and played along the canal.  Once a vital commercial waterway, today it is one of the most visited National Parks in the country.

 

Before the invention of the steam engine, waterways were the fastest and safest way to transport goods over long distances.  Unfortunately for merchants in the Washington area, river traffic on the Potomac River was impeded by Great Falls.  In order to use the river to its full potential, something had to be done.  First, the Patowmack Company built a series of small canals on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river, completed in 1802.  These canals were moderately successful, but still required use of the river itself in some places.  In 1824 the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company was formed, with the intent of building a single canal on the Maryland side of the river, stretching from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh.

 

The groundbreaking ceremony took place on July 4, 1828, next to what would eventually become Lock 6.  United States President John Quincy Adams presided, and expectations for success were high.  Building a canal is not an easy task, however.  It took 22 years and over 4,000 men to build the canal’s 184.5 miles of canal and towpath, including all the locks, aqueducts, and tunnels.  Eventually the Canal Company gave up on reaching Pittsburgh and decided to end in Cumberland, in western Maryland.  The final section of the canal was completed in 1850.