By Frank Leone
The C&O Canal runs 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown and ends at Rock Creek. But from the 1830s to 1860, an extension of that canal ran from Rock Creek, south along the Potomac River, then west along what is now Constitution Avenue to a lock at 17th St. The Lockkeeper’s house at Constitution and 17th is all that remains of this transportation corridor.
The C&O Washington Branch formed a connection between the Washington City Canal and the C&O Canal. The L'Enfant Plan included a system of canals to transport heavy goods at a time when roads were few and muddy. The Washington City Canal was opened in 1815. It ran from the mouth of Tiber Creek (Constitution Ave. and 17th St.) to the Capitol and then south to the Anacostia.
Construction began in 1828 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to connect Washington, D.C., to the fertile Ohio River Valley. The canal began in Cumberland Maryland and ran 184.5 miles to Georgetown, where it ended at Rock Creek. The City of Washington, however, wanted the C&O to link up to the Washington Canal at 17th St. The City of Washington had promised to invest one million dollars in the C&O Canal, but insisted on the connection to the Washington City Canal. With this connection, the City of Washington, rather than the City of Georgetown, would be the eastern terminus of the C&O Canal. The C&O Canal Company agreed to build and own the extension.
The 1¼ mile C&O branch extension began at the Rock Creek Basin. The Basin was created by the construction of a peninsula (“Môle”), blocking off much of the Creek and a tidelock that allowed access to the Potomac. (The tidelock was sometimes referred to as the Water Gate). The canal extension reached south along 27th Street (now Watergate and the Kennedy Center), cutting through Easby’s Point, and then west, following Tiber Creek to the point where it met the Washington Canal at the 17th St. wharf (and now Constitution Ave.). Clearing the course of the Canal required blasting much of what remained of Braddock’s Rock. The entire route was parallel and within a few yards of the shore of the Potomac.
The C&O Canal Branch was completed in 1833 and connected to the deepened Washington Canal by in 1837. With the drop in elevation below Georgetown, two locks were necessary: one that opened from the canal to the Potomac River between H and I Streets (Lock A), and a second at 17th Street (Lock B). The Lockkeeper’s house at Lock B was completed in 1837, and you can visit it today. The tidelock at 17th Street lowered the water level three and half feet. According to one observer (Easby), the canal boats were towed by mule along a towpath, the same propulsion method used on the main C&O Canal.
The C&O Washington Branch was perhaps the least successful of Washington’s generally unsuccessful canals. At the Georgetown end, the mouth of Rock Creek continually silted up, making it inaccessible. Wastes from the nearby Washington Gas plant were dumped into the canal. Until the 1860s, the Georgetown bridges were too low to allow larger ships to pass (so they were unloaded in Georgetown and never reached Washington). The Washington City Canal which operated from 1815 to approximately 1870 also constantly silted up and needed dredging and repairs. The C&O Canal itself was in constant need of repairs and funding and its maintenance was a much higher priority. Thus, by the 1850s, the Washington branch was allowed to fall into decay. Plans were made in 1870 to restore the branch, as well as the Washington City Canal, but those plans were abandoned and the canals were eventually filled in.
SOURCES: Cornelius W. Heine, “The Washington City Canal,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington D.C. 1953/1956, vol. 51-56, pp. 1-27; Wilhelmine M. Easby-Smith, “Personal recollections of early Washington and a sketch of the life of Captain William Easby,” presented to the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, June 4, 1913; Harlan D. Unrau, Historic Resource Study: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, National Park Service, 2007; Walter Sanderlin, The Great National Project, Johns Hopkins Press, 1946; Lockkeeper’s House, National Historic Register Additional Documentation, National Park Service, Aug. 19, 2022; Foggy Bottom Association History Project.