By Frank Leone
The C&O canal is a historic and natural gem of the D.C. area. The canal, and its towpath, runs 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown and can be walked, biked, canoed, travelled by canal boat, or otherwise enjoyed. But the C&O is just one of the waterways created when “canal fever” swept the country (and D.C.) in the early 1800s. The Potomac Canal preceded the C&O, the Alexandria Canal branched off via an aqueduct bridge over the Potomac at Georgetown, the Washington City Canal ran from what is now Constitution Avenue and 17th St. to the Anacostia, and the Washington Branch of the C&O connected the basin at Rock Creek with the Washington Canal. Although these canals met with limited success, they are an important part of the City’s history.
The Potomac Canal: Before the C&O canal, the Ohio Company (1759) sought to improve the navigability of the Potomac River to bring goods from the new western frontier (the Ohio River Valley) to the more populated east coast. It was succeeded by the Potomac (Pawtomack) Company (1785), with George Washington as its president. The Company sought to smooth the passage of the river and install locks to bypass five waterfalls. The work on the locks was completed in 1802, but financial difficulties and the failure to complete the river’s improvement led to the Company’s demise. Remains of the Potomac Company locks are still visible at Great Falls National Park (on the Virginia side).
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, “the great national project,” also was intended to connect the Chesapeake Bay area with the Ohio River on the western frontier. The canal encountered many difficulties in its construction (1828 to 1850) and operations, including lack of funding from state and federal governments, mistreatment of Irish immigrant canal builders and resulting labor difficulties, engineering challenges, political disputes, the aggressive opposition of the B&O Railroad (which eventually purchased the canal in receivership), and incessant droughts and floods, which made the canal impassible and necessitated expensive repairs. Nevertheless, at its peak in the 1870s, 500 boats per day traveled the canal, many crewed by families. The boats primarily brought coal from western Maryland, but also flour and other products. The canal ceased operations after a final storm in 1924. The Federal government bought the canal in 1938. In the 1950s, Justice William O. Douglas led a hike that helped convince the government to abandon plans to build a highway, and instead make the canal the park which we now enjoy.
The Alexandria Canal: When the C&O was built, the City of Alexandria (which was part of the District of Columbia from 1800 to 1846) wanted its share of commerce. Between 1831 and 1843, Alexandria (with some Federal funding) built its own seven mile canal. The canal crossed the Potomac via the Potomac Aqueduct bridge, and traveled through Alexandria (now Arlington) County, to the Alexandria waterfront. There coal and other goods could be transferred to ships which could dock in Alexandria’s harbor, which was deeper than Georgetown’s. During the Civil War, the Union drained the Potomac Aqueduct and converted it into a road bridge to liberated parts of northern Virginia. The aqueduct and canal were reopened after the war and operated from 1867-1886, although, like the C&O Canal, its use declined after 1875. It was replaced by a bridge in 1887, and then the Francis Scott Key Bridge in 1923. The aqueduct abutment and a pier are still visible just north of Key Bridge in Georgetown.
The Washington Canal: George Washington and city designer Pierre L’Enfant had envisioned a grand canal through Washington City to bring goods and commerce. The Washington Canal was built between 1810 and 1815 and ran two miles from the mouth of Tiber Creek (17th St.) down what is now Constitution Avenue, across the Capital grounds, then south to the Anacostia River. The canal was used to transport marble for federal buildings and other building materials, firewood, coal, and other goods. But it never lived up to its expectations and endured a constant cycle of silting, eventually becoming an open sewer. By 1873, the western section was abandoned and covered by B Street NW, now Constitution Avenue.
The C&O Washington Branch: Foggy Bottom got its own canal as well. In return for the City of Washington’s contribution to the C&O Canal, the City insisted that an extension be built, making it the terminus of the Canal. The C&O Canal Washington Branch was built from the Rock Creek basin, where the C&O ended in Georgetown, south along the Potomac, then west on Tiber Creek, joining the Washington City Canal at 17th Street. It functioned (more or less) from 1833 to the 1850s, but was then abandoned. You can visit the Lockkeeper’s house at Constitution and 17th St., completed in 1837, which controlled the lock between the C&O Washington extension and the Washington City Canal. (We’ll discuss the Washington Branch in a later post.) In 2017, the house was relocated 35 feet to the southwest, away from Constitution Avenue.
Sources: Harlan D. Unrau, Historic Resource Study: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, National Park Service, 2007; Mike High, The C&O Canal Companion, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000; Elizabeth Kytle, Home on the Canal, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983; Walter Sanderlin, The Great National Project, Johns Hopkins Press, 1946; Foggy Bottom Association History Project.
UPDATE: I neglected to mention Joel Achenbach, The Grand Idea, Simon & Schuster, 2004, an excellent book on the Potomac Canal, and the recently published, Barbara Boyle Torrey & Clara Myrick Green, Between Freedom and Equality: The History of an African American Family in Washington, D.C., Georgetown Press, 2021, which tells the story of the life of Capt. George Pointer, a Potomac Canal superintendent and his descendants.