Monday, March 5, 2012

Primer on the C&O Canal

[View of the restored C+O Canal at Georgetown, photo credit National Park Service, here)

I posted last week about a recent run on the C+O Canal.  I am absolutely smitten with this national park--the natural surroundings, the river, the critters, the historical structures, the archeology, and above all, the engineering involved.

Before I posted any more, I figured I'd better include a primer so readers will know what the heck I am talking about. 

Essentially, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal--C+O for short--was a ditch filled with water upon which mule-pulled canal boats operated.  It was in operation from approx 1831 until 1924, and ran all the way from Georgetown (Washington, DC) to Cumberland, Maryland, some 185 miles. The C+O Canal sits immediately beside the Potomac River, which itself was not suitable for navigation.

Here is an excerpt from National Park Service information: 

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C+O) Canal is one of the most intact and impressive survivals of the American canal-building era. The C+O Canal is unique in that it remains virtually unbroken and without substantial modification affecting its original character for its entire length of 185 miles.

The C+O Company was chartered in 1825 to construct a shipping canal connecting tidewater on the Potomac River in DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, thereby providing an economical trade route between the eastern seaboard and the trans-Allegheny West. The company acquired the rights of the Potomac Company, formed by George Washington and associates to improve navigation on the Potomac. That venture had attempted to achieve its objective by deepening the channel and cutting skirting canals around impassible rapids, but the flow of the river proved too erratic to make these measures successful. This experience led C+O promoters to adopt plans for a separate canal paralleling the river. President John Quincy Adams turned the first spadeful of earth in ceremonies at Little Falls, Maryland, on July 4, 1828. On the same day, construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad westward from Baltimore was begun-a move that would have significant implications for the ultimate fate of the canal and the canal era generally.
The canal survives as an excellent illustration of 19th-century canal-building technology. The magnitude of the engineering achievement is exemplified by the length of the canal, its 74 lift locks to accommodate a rise of 605 feet, the 11 stone aqueducts spanning the major Potomac tributaries, 7 dams supplying water to the canal, hundreds of culverts carrying roads and streams beneath the canal, and a 3,117-foot tunnel carrying the canal through a large shale rock formation.

That's it in a nutshell.  Now my subsequent posts on the C+O may make a bit more sense.  When I talk about running there, that means running along the towpath where the mules once walked.


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