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Potomac Canal

The old plan of Washington's, by which the Middle West and Northwest were to be held in fee by those who controlled the Potomac, was as dominant in 1823 as it was, within a limited circle, in 1784. In fact this is what the Potomac Company, the Potomac Canal Company, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company and the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Company have all stood for — this commercial control of the trans-Allegheny empire.

Among the improvements of internal waterways in America, that of the Potomac urged by Washington meant to the last quarter of the eighteenth century what the building of the Erie Canal meant to the first quarter of the nineteenth.

Having maintained with earnestness for many years that Virginia and Maryland should, through the Potomac River, secure the trade of the rising empire west of the Alleghenies, Washington, at the close of the Revolution, gave himself wholly up to this commercial problem. Before peace was declared he left the Continental camp at Newberg and made a long, dangerous tour up the Mohawk Valley, examining carefully the portages to Wood Creek at Rome, and to Lake Otsego at Canajoharie. With that far-sighted shrewdness which, of itself, made him a marked man, he felt that this route which avoided the mountains was the great rival of his Potomac River.

Virginia and Maryland passed laws authorizing the formation of a company for the improvement of the Potomac River. "I have now the pleasure," wrote Washington to Richard Henry Lee, February 8, 1785, "to inform you that the Assemblies of Virginia and Maryland have enacted laws, of which the inclosed is a copy. They are exactly similar in both States. At the same time, and at the joint and equal expense of the two governments, the sum of six thousand six hundred and sixty-six dollars and two thirds is voted for opening and keeping in repair a road from the highest practicable navigation of this river to that of the River Cheat, or Monongahela, as commissioners, who are appointed to survey and lay out the same, shall find most convenient and beneficial to the western settlers." Washington believed fully that the project was to be a great success for stockholders; he estimated that they would receive twenty per cent from investments in Potomac improvement in a few years.

The services of Mr. James Rumsey, the mechanician, being secured, as general manager of improvements, the president, directors and manager made an examination of the river with a view to planning the work to be done. Three important impediments to navigation were immediately attacked; these were known as "Great Falls," "Seneca Falls" and "Shenandoah Falls". The "Great Falls" of these early days are the rapids and falls above Washington which bear the same name today. Seneca Falls were early known as "Sinegar Falls," in the Revolutionary era on Fry and Jefferson's map. They lie just above Great Falls, near the mouth of Seneca Creek. Shenandoah Falls were at the present Harper's Ferry at the mouth of the river of the same name.

Washington was elected President of the United States for the term beginning March 4, 1789. From the day of his withdrawal from the Potomac Company its affairs languished. On ten different occasions did the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland extend the time demanded by law for the completion of the Potomac improvements, between 1786 and 1820. During thirty-six years $729,380 had been spent in the attempt to improve the Potomac and little had been accomplished.

At the Great Falls, where the difference of level is seventy-six feet nine inches, it was surmounted by five locks of solid masonry of stone; each one hundred feet in length, of various widths of from ten to fourteen feet, with a lift of from ten to eighteen feet; also, guard locks, and entensive basin—a canal twelve hundred yards in length lined with stone. The two lower locks were excavated entirely from the solid rock, and exhibited an imperishable monument of perseverance and skill.

At the Little Falls, the difference of level is thirty-seven feet, and was surmounted by four locks of solid masonry of stone, of the dimensions of eighty feet in length, and twelve feet wide, and by a canal two-and-a-half miles long; on the margin of which were found inexhaustible supplies of valuable stone for building purposes.

The canal, at both the Great and Little Falls, was excavated of the following dimensions: Twenty-five feet wide at the smv face, twenty feet wide at the bottom, and four feet deep. Gondolas and small canal boats only navigated this canal.

By this time the promotion of the Erie Canal aroused the proprietors to inquire into the feasibility of cutting a canal from the Potomac to the Ohio River. In 1822 a committee advised a more effectual method of inland navigation and suggested the plan of a canal through the region in which the Potomac Company had proposed to operate, to be connected with Baltimore, the metropolis of the Chesapeake, by means of a lateral canal, from some point along the Potomac Valley.

In 1825, an assignment of all the right, title, claim, and franchise, of the Potomac Canal Company, was made to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company, and being vested with all the privileges of the Potomac Canal, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company made the bed of the Potomac Canal as a part of its own structure. The boats that navigated the old Potomac Canal, only carried from eighty to one hundred barrels of flour; the boats now navigating the present canal, will carry from one thousand to twelve hundred barrels of flour or one hundred and twenty tons of coal.

The eastern terminus of the canal route remained in Georgetown, until Congress, by the act of 26th May, 1830, incorporated the Alexandria Canal Company authorizing the construction of a canal from the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in Georgetown, across the. Potomac river, to a point on the river in or near the city of Alexandria. Under that charter a canal was conducted across the Potomac at Georgetown upon an aqueduct supported upon piers, built on rock in the bed of the river, and upon stone abutments.

The Alexandria Canal Company was incorporated by Congress and authorized to construct a canal from the terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in Georgetown across the Potomac river. Under this charter a canal was conducted across the Potomac by an aqueduct, supported upon piers.

When completed,the Alexandria Canal crossed the Potomac River in anaqueduct bridge over 1,000 feet long between Georgetown and Rosslyn then ran on level ground seven miles to theedge of Alexandria terminating in a large basin. In 1845, the canal com-pany completed the construction of the four lift locks atAlexandria which lowered canal boats approximately 38feet to the Potomac River where they discharged theircargoes onto wharves or directly into sailing vessels. On December 2, 1843, the Alexandria Canal was officially opened to trade and navigation.

The Alexandria Canal Company for many years operated the canal, until the 16th of May, 1866, when the Board of Public Works of Virginia, under authority of law, united with the city of Alexandria and with the Alexandria Canal Company, in a lease of the canal, its aqueduct, locks, banks, and all other, its property, rights, and franchises. The lessees were empowered to erect, build, operate, and maintain across the Potomac river, over the stone piers on which the aqueduct rested, a new aqueduct of wood, iron, or stone, and in connection therewith, a bridge of the same material for the passage of persons, animals, wagons, &c.

Shipments continued until the abandonment of the canal in 1886, which had been interrupted only by the Civil War because of the need to use the aqueduct for a bridge over which to transfer Federal troops and supplies. A break in the aqueduct in 1886 coincided with the demand for a toll-free bridge across the Potomac River. Thus the operation of the Alexandria Canal came to an end.





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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:10 ZULU