Life on the Canal

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One of my favorite places in the Washington D.C. area is the Great Falls of the Potomac just fourteen or so miles upriver from the city. There, at the fall line of the Potomac, the river drops nearly eighty feet in less than a mile. This natural area features excellent hiking and biking and national park land on both sides of the river at the falls. George Washington had dreamed of a canal on the Virginia side that would allow boats to bypass the falls. Vestiges of his Patowmack Canal, which lasted just shy of thirty years, still exist in Great Falls Park on the Virginia side.

Across the river on the Maryland side another venture in canal-building offers a different story: the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Begun in 1828, the canal would provide access to western wealth and last almost ninety-three years, surviving floods and the success of the railroad.  Thousands of immigrants built it and hundreds of working families spent their lives along it. A massive flood in 1924 and resulting financial ruin brought the canal era to an end and it was abandoned for decades.  Congress considered creating a parkway but the preservationists won the day, with strong support from U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas who led an eight-day hike along the entire path.

The towpath follows a mostly empty canal for 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington to Cumberland, Maryland. The goal was to connect Washington with the Ohio River, but it didn’t reach its destination. By the time construction ended in 1850, canals had become obsolete, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had won the transportation competition. While railroads were more cost effective than canals and quickly spread across the landscape, the canal way of life thrived for several decades in the 1800s.

Today as walkers and bikers travel the twelve-foot wide towpath, it’s not hard to imagine the teams of two to three mules pulling the ninety-foot long barges filled with 125 tons of coal, wheat, flour or lumber. A mule team worked for about six hours and then was switched with a fresh team. Each barge carried a crew of five, a cook, two mule handlers, and two steermen. The barge master’s family sometimes filled the roles.  Visitors today who want to feel what it was like to ride the barges can take a ride on a reproduction barge during the months between April and October.

Visitors to the Great Falls Tavern on the Maryland side can learn more about the history of the canal through several exhibits in this early locktender’s house, which was expanded to offer accommodations for travelers. A number of lock gates still remain and the large wood gate arms serve as a reminder of the engineering feat that the canal represents.

In the last few years, the Park staff has opened several lockhouses  along the canal for overnight accommodations. How cool would it be to stay overnight in one of those? I wish the Park Service success in this new venture.

No matter the season, the C&O canal never ceases to offer a respite from the rush of the city and to point to a slower time when life traveled at the speed of mules.

Have you been to the C&O? Tell about it!

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 19th century, 20th century, national park, transportation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Life on the Canal

  1. Jay Blossom says:

    Tim, one thing has always bothered me. The canal wasn’t commercially successful because of the railroad, yet it continued in operation for 93 years. So it must have been profitable, because it wouldn’t have been in operation that long while running at a deficit. Do you know anything more about the economics of the canal?

  2. Pingback: Historic Houses as Holiday Rentals | historyplaces

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