The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was intended to be an artificial waterway for the transportation of goods and people between the upper reaches of the tidal Potomac at the District of Columbia and the Ohio River at Pittsburg. Construction began in 1828 on the 185-mile Eastern Section between DC and Cumberland. This section followed the Potomac on the Maryland side, overcoming the 608 ft. difference in elevation by a series of 74 lift locks averaging an elevation gain of 8 ft. per lock.

The Construction Era

During the construction era, the canal opened as sections were completed to the inlet locks behind the dams that impounded water for the canal. Thus the first 22 miles opened in 1831 up to Dam No. 2 just below Seneca. In 1833 the canal was extended to Dam No. 3, a mile above Harpers Ferry; and in 1835 the sections were opened to Dam No. 4 and Dam No. 5 (below and above Williamsport respectively). In 1839 when the section up to Dam No. 6 (located some ten miles above Hancock) was opened, the canal was 134 miles long and was serving the rich agricultural region of the piedmont as well as the Great Valley (known as the Shenandoah Valley south of the Potomac and Cumberland Valley north of it).

The last 50 miles between Dam No. 6 and Dam No. 8 at Cumberland finally opened October 10, 1850 with great fanfare. Ultimately the sections over the mountains and down the Monongahela to Pittsburgh were never built, although proposals to continue the canal to the Ohio were made from time to time.

Operational Years

For nearly 75 years, the canal was an important regional carrier of bituminous coal from the mines of Western Maryland to canal communities and the C&O’s eastern terminus at the port of Georgetown. This access to the Potomac at Georgetown gave the canal a considerable advantage over the railroad that came into the federal district on the eastern (land side) of the City of Washington until the B&O’s Georgetown branch was completed in 1910.

In addition to coal, the canal carried a wide variety of agricultural products as well as products such as lumber and, coming up the canal from the federal district ports, products such as guano (used as a fertilizer), seafood from the tidal bays and rivers, and the hard anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania (preferred by blacksmiths and for certain other uses). Packet boats for passengers operated at times in the early decades of the canal’s operation, especially between Georgetown and Harpers Ferry and between Harpers Ferry and Williamsport.

Transshipment between canal freighters and ships took place in the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria. The latter was accessible to canal boats by the 7-mile long Alexandria Canal that operated from 1843–1861 and 1866–1886 (having been closed during the Civil War). By the time the Alexandria canal closed permanently, tug boats were towing canal freighters from Tidelock to wharfs along the Potomac. Among the destinations to which they were taken was the federal coal depot at Indian Head, a considerable distance down the river. The supply of coal by the canal to the government was sufficiently important that in 1918 the federal government had a fleet of 10 canal freighters built in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and towed to Georgetown where they were put into operation on the canal for the government’s exclusive use.

Only in the 1870s did the canal make enough profit to put a significant dent in its debts, but its financial difficulties were mirrored by its nemesis, the B&O Railroad. For both transportation systems, the costs of labor, land, and materials rose precipitously during their construction years; and storm damage was always costly for the railroads just as floods were for the canal.

For the railroad, however, an additional reality was the enormous cost of improvements required to make the infant technology into a reliable and efficient carrier of freight. Through the latter part of the 19th century especially, this meant major improvements and enlargements of coal hoppers, freight cars, and engines, as well as the invention of new kinds of brakes and couplers. The advent of steel rails and improvement of infrastructure such as bridges to accommodate the increasing weight and speed of trains ultimately, with the spread of rail lines, ultimately made the C&O Canal obsolete by 1924 when it closed.


During its last 35 years of operation, the administrative history of the canal was complicated. In 1889, the same vast storm system that caused the Johnstown flood, wreaked havoc on the canal, putting the C&O Canal Company into bankruptcy. The court that handled the bankruptcy negotiated primarily with the B&O Railroad, as over the years it had acquired the majority of the C&O’s 1844 construction bonds that mortgaged the canal’s future revenue; and the 1878 repair bonds (for repairs after a severe flood in 1877) that mortgaged the real property of the canal.

Ultimately the court agreed to a receivership dominated by the B&O Railroad, and under the receivers the canal was repaired and reopened in the fall of 1891. In 1894 the Chesapeake and Ohio Transportation Company was established and the receivers contracted with it to operate the canal beginning on January 1, 1896. (It should be noted that the B&O itself was in receivership from 1895–1907).

In 1902 the Canal Towage Company was formed and absorbed the individually-owned boats as the owners quickly realized that it was financially advantageous to work for the CTC. The Consolidated Coal Company also maintained a large fleet of canal freighters and several other companies operated their own boats as well.

The flood of March 29, 1924—the first major flood since that 35 years before, in 1889—did enormous damage to many sections of the C&O Canal. Although the canal had been an important carrier of coal in WWII, by this time the mines in Western Maryland were playing out and the demand for coal was declining as diesel engines replaced coal-fired steam engines and other sources of energy were increasingly used in homes. In addition, numerous railroads (now an advanced technology) served the region and industry was disappearing from the Georgetown waterfront.

With the permission of the court overseeing the receivership, it was determined that repairs would be made only to the lower 5-mile level from which water was sold to the few remaining industries in Georgetown. Interestingly the canal was not legally abandoned, as the court took the position that it could be restored to navigable condition if trade were offered. This position was further affirmed by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in Equity during its spring term in 1935. Its ruling in USA vs. the C&O Canal Company stated that abandonment was a matter of intention, not appearance.

During the depression in the 1930s, the B&O Railroad became increasingly indebted to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. By 1935 the railroad saw the sale of canal lands as a way to pay down its debt so it could receive an additional RFC loan. However, the legal status of the canal was anything but clear, and it required research and an opinion by the US Attorney General’s office to formulate a legal argument and outline procedures to establish the B&O’s claim to the canal.

Sale to B&O Railroad

Ultimately on September 28, 1938, by following the means outlined in the November 13, 1936 Memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Blair, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was sold to the federal government by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for some $2 million. The lower 22 miles from Dam No. 2 were then restored by two CCC units between 1939 and 1941, and designated the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Recreational Waterway.

Subsequently for more than three decades, arguments raged over the use of the canal lands and the Potomac River and its shores. Proposals to build both hydroelectric and flood control dams on the Potomac and its tributaries would have destroyed much of the canal, as would also a proposed parkway that dominated the controversy over the C&O lands between 1945 and 1954.

C & O Becomes a National Park

This prolonged battle over canal properties involved state and federal agencies, private interests, and diverse groups of citizens who were primarily concerned with its natural and recreational resources. It was not until the summer of 1970 that a consensus emerged making the creation of the C&O Canal National Historical Park possible. Once that happened, the best of recent C&O Canal bills was quickly tweaked to address lingering concerns, and H.R. 19342 moved quickly through Congress, being passed by the House on October 5 and the Senate on December 22. On January 8, 1971, it was signed by President Richard Nixon as Public Law 91-664.

By Karen Gray, Phd