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Washington’s “Heroic Enterprise:” The Patowmack Canal

George Washington as a young man explored and surveyed the Potomac watershed and lands west in the Ohio country. As a surveyor he got to know the lay of the land. In the course of his travels he came up with an audacious notion that became a fixed conviction of his later years. His idea was that the upper Potomac river must be made navigable and become the prime corridor of trade and commerce tying the western lands to the navigable tidewater Potomac, the nation’s capital and the eastern seaboard. By the time the American revolutionary war broke out the idea of a Potomac route had become the central element in his strategic vision. For Washington it was manifest that the new American republic must draw the western country and its inhabitants into its orbit and exclude Great Britain and Spain, or any other foreign power for that matter, from gaining dominion over the western regions.

He had to put his plan for the Potomac route aside while he was absorbed in the war with Britain for American independence. With victory he promptly returned to his Potomac project promoting it with the same passion and heroic determination that he had fought the war. He was driven by a sense of urgency that the nation must win the Ohio country into its orbit or lose it. He saw imminent danger that the inhabitants of the western regions would turn away from the newly formed United States and join the British in the north or the Spanish to the south. In his view, time was of the essence. The Patowmack Canal project was his short cut to winning over the western country. He told Jefferson in a letter (March, 1784) that “not a moment ought to be lost in commencing this business.”

Washington’s first task was to gain political and then financial support for his Patowmack Company proposal. This he accomplished in short order. In his glory as the author of victory in the revolutionary war he met and overcame all resistance. Washington was a tireless lobbyist. He worked around opposition in Maryland, mainly from Baltimore merchants, to opening up the Potomac as a trade route. He had to lend his support to Virginia’s own project for a James River navigation to the western country in return for the state’s backing his plan. He thus lined up the legislators in the Virginia and Maryland assemblies behind him and got both bodies to agree that free trade along a Potomac route was essential. That principle was duly incorporated into The Mount Vernon Compact signed between the two states in 1785 and later became part of the U. S. Constitution in the inter-state commerce clause.

Virginia and Maryland also put their money where their mouths were. They purchased a fifth of the Company’s stock. The remainder was bought up by a number of eminent and eager private purchasers. The Company was entrusted with the construction of a series of canals skirting the major rapids on the Potomac River. Washington was made the Company’s first President and he actively engaged in the project until his election as the first President of the republic under the new constitution. In any case, his strong interest in the project never waned right up to his death in 1799.

Washington’s determination to realize his dream of a Potomac route to the Ohio country was a striking example of what Alexis De Tocqueville in his Democracy in America called the American proclivity to engage in “heroic enterprises.” Washington’s canal project was an early exemplar of just such an enterprise. Washington’s courageous perseverance in war now turned to overcoming formidable natural obstacles in transforming the Potomac into a working transportation salient into the Ohio country.

Making the Potomac River into a navigable trade route was, if not a mission impossible, no easy task. Anyone paddling by canoe on the Potomac’s reaches as Washington did will encounter all kinds of obstacles and dangers: rapids, rock ledges, boulders and rock gardens.

There are, however, five major rapids along the Potomac that challenged the Patowmack Company’s ingenuity and resolve. These were the most serious obstacles to navigation on the river and required the construction of navigation channels either through or around them. These are: Little Falls just above the end of the tidal Potomac and at the fall line just above Chain Bridge, Great Falls spilling over the edge of the Piedmont plateau that rises some 14 miles up river from Georgetown, Seneca Falls another seven to eight miles further on the river just below where Seneca Creek enters the Potomac and, finally, two sets of rapids at Harper’s Ferry: House Falls just above the town and Shenandoah Falls just below the town at the Potomac’s junction with the Shenandoah.

Little Falls already had its by-pass canal. A canal promoter, John Ballendine, built the canal in the early 1770s around the rapids. He constructed three rather primitive locks in the two mile section in order to overcome a 38 foot drop. He owned a mill, a bakery by the rapids and had his home there as well. The Great Falls presents the greatest and most precipitous drop of some 77 feet and required a three-quarter-mile skirting canal with a deep cut into the solid stone cliff of the adjoining Mather Gorge. The drop at Seneca Falls is only seven feet but extends over nearly a mile of rapids. A channel of fast-flowing water needed to be cut through this series of rapids which today still makes a good run for a canoeist or kayaker. The drop at Shenandoah Falls is 15 feet over a mile-long stretch of rapids and required the clearing of a navigable sluice through the rapids. The drop at House Falls is but three feet over a distance of 150 yards. This was the least formidable of the major rapids and building the channel through it was the least difficult.

Without a doubt the greatest obstacle facing the canal builders was the Great Falls. Even in the nine mile section from Great Falls to Little Falls, as all paddlers know well, there are a series of other intervening rapids: the Maryland Chute, Yellow Falls and Stubblefield Falls are among the more notable of them. These lesser boat wreckers also needed to be got around or through. However, these were only minor obstacles when compared with the grand and rocky rampart of the Great Falls.

John Davis, a visiting Englishman and writer, recorded the effect the falls had on him at first sight: “I now ascended a hill that led to the Great Falls and on a sudden my steps were suspended by the conflict of elements, the strife of Nature. I beheld the course of a large river abruptly obstructed by rocks, over which it was breaking with a tremendous roar, while the foam of the waters seemed ascending to the clouds and the shores that confined it to tremble at the convolution. I gazed for some time in silent awe at this war of the elements?” Davis visited America around 1800 but his impression of the mighty falls has been shared by many other first time viewers since then.

The task facing the builders at the Great Falls was an engineering challenge of the first order. These were times when civil engineering was unknown in the new country. The construction of the skirting canal at Great Falls was the piece de resistance of the entire Patowmack Canal project.

What had to be done was to blast and cut a deep cleft through the solid rock of a cliff rising seventy seven feet from the river level below to the river level above the Falls. The passage through the rock wall had to be large enough to accommodate loaded batteaus, a channel no less than twelve feet across. The typical batteau was anywhere between fifty to seventy five feet long and five feet in width and carried up to 20 tons of cargo. Five locks were built to surmount the 77 foot change in elevation at the site. The creation of a working system of locks through the barrier was in itself an impressive technical achievement.

Washington engaged James Rumsey, the famed experimenter and inventor of steamboats, to be the first Superintendent of the Patowmack Canal. He inveigled him to leave his steamboat experiments for a time and take on the canal project. “The ingenious Mr. Rumsey,” as Washington called him, came closest to an inventive and resourceful engineer that could be found.

Rumsey first of all persuaded Washington that a skirting canal at Great Falls could only be operated safely with a system of locks. He prudently argued that no roller coaster sluice around the Great Falls could take boats through without extreme risk. Washington had evidently thought that sluices and cuts were enough to do the job.

Though he had never seen a well-engineered European canal lock, Rumsey came up with an excellent lock design. Though no locks were actually built under his supervision the example of his design went a long way in making the Great Falls canal a technological success. Rumsey leaped into the project with great energy. He divided his work force into three contingents: one at Great Falls, another at Seneca Falls and the third at Shenandoah Falls at the Harper’s Ferry gap. But within the year Rumsey quit in high dudgeon. He characterized the people working on the project as a “troop” of “villains.” He left his well paid position, some 200 pounds per annum, to return to his first love, to his experiments with steam propulsion up river at Shepardstown.

Washington was not entirely mistaken in hiring Rumsey. In his brief incumbency Rumsey came up with a crucially important and effective design for the locks. Without the decision to use a lock system the project would not have succeeded.

In any case, the principal reasons for Rumsey’s early departure were clear. By year’s end he had had enough. His problems were not technological, but human. He found himself in constant tussles with his workers and this was compounded by clashes with his assistant manager, Richardson Stewart. Though feisty, Rumsey’s labor troubles were not simply of his own making. They were real. Finding skilled labor was next to impossible and finding enough workers to take on the hard labor most difficult. Workers on the job often found the toil too much to bear and abandoned the work sites. Rumsey sent out bulletins on the runaways, chased them down and put them back to work whenever he was able to do so. Irish workers were the most troublesome. Their pugnacity and drunken brawls upset the management and alarmed the local community.

Rumsey was candid in his comment: “Every time that they get a little drunk, I am cursed and abused about their money in such a manner that contrary to my wish, I am obliged to turn abuser.”

His most important squad of workers were his “blowers.” Rumsey faced difficulties here also. At one point he reports that: “We have been much imposed upon the last two weeks in the powder way—we had our Blowers, one run off, the other blown up. We therefore were obliged to have two new hands put to blowing.”

After Rumsey’s departure work crept along and the desperate search for reliable workers continued. First free laborers, then indentured servants, and then slaves hired from their owners, were employed. None fully fit the bill. Moreover, there was not enough money. This meant the project had to be done on the cheap. To build an artificial canal along the length of the Potomac route after the European model was beyond the financial reach of the Company or the country in those years.

There were no trained canal engineers to direct the project. The whole project was an early instance of do-it-yourself, though without a how-to-do-it manual. The work proceeded through trial-and-error and for the canal builders it was on-the-job training. A skilled and willing work force was very hard to come by.

The tools and machinery employed in the project belonged to the pre-industrial revolution – picks, shovels, crowbars, hand augers, block and tackle and elemental machines were all the builders could muster. The toil was back breaking and full of danger.

Black powder was the only explosive available for breaking down and clearing away rocky formations. “Blowers” had to be found willing to face the high danger of setting and igniting black powder charges. A blower’s misstep often meant death or maiming. Blowers were the reckless heroes of this heroic enterprise. They blew and broke their way through the Mather Gorge cliff to make the passage for the last three and most impressive of the five locks of the skirting canal. Some 4300 cubic yards of rock shattered by the explosives had to be removed from the cleft by hard labor.

Though some of the river traffic began as early as 1788, it took about twelve years to put the by-passes into full operation, not the five years as originally contemplated. Then, it took another five years to finish the canal at Great Falls. Only when Leonard Harbaugh, the most able of the superintendents, arrived in 1797 did the work at the site accelerate. Harbaugh was good at lock construction and, especially, at getting the most difficult locks built. These were the three locks descending precipitously down the cliff to the lower river. He was very good at encouraging his workers to work harder. To use behaviorist terminology, he was good at negative reinforcement. He tells us in one report that: “in excavating for the lower locks a borer’s work was estimated to be six feet; in case he did not complete that amount, he was to be deprived of his daily quota of whiskey.” Harbaugh’s tactics worked. In 1802 he had the satisfaction of celebrating the completion of the skirting canal. Up until then boats had to be portaged around the Falls and lowered into the river. This took time and hard work. Now boats locked through with ease in about an hour.

The opening of the by-pass canal was by any measure a great technological feat and a heroic conquest of nature’s embattlements at the Great Falls. The canal at the falls was clearly a technological achievement of the first order but, sadly, did not bring in a lot of cash in tolls for the Company.

Washington and his fellow stockholders had cherished the hope that a flourishing town would grow at the Great Falls site. This was not to be. “Light horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, was sure that a town there would be a highly profitable venture. He was wrong. With his wife Matilda’s money he began to build the town of Matildaville next to the holding basin at the Great Falls canal. A few buildings and structures were raised at the site. Among them were Dickey’s Tavern, the Superintendent’s house, workers quarters, a store, a grist mill, anThe iron works, a sawmill, a wharf and an icehouse. In the end, the Patowmack Canal venture did not prove a boon to the Company’s stockholders and the hamlet, Matildaville, did not grow into the thriving town that its founder hoped. Traffic along the canal never reached a level to support such a town.

Though not enough to support a town, boat traffic did come regularly through the Great Falls canal during its years of operation. For example, 305 boats were locked through in 1802 after the opening of the canal that year, in 1805, 405 boats and in 1811, 1300. The number of boats coming through each year was dependent on the number of days the wild and unpredictable Potomac was runnable in a particular year. In the bonanza year of 1811 more than 16,000 tons of cargo came through worth some $925,000. However, the Company’s tolls amounted only to some $22,000.

Over the years of its operation from roughly 1788 to 1830 more than ten million dollars worth of products and produce came through the Patowmack Canal system. In current dollars that amount needs to be multiplied, say, fifteen to twenty times.

Despite the successful operation of the canal and locks at Great Falls, the Patowmack Company steadily lost ground financially. By 1817 the Company had expended $650,000 on canal improvements but had only collected some $162, 000 in tolls. The operation of the canal at the Great Falls was impressive but the Company did not win the financial reward commensurate with its achievement.

The boatmen plying the Potowmack Canal system did profit from their audacity in navigating the river. A successful trip reaped hard cash. The risks of travel on the river were high. The boatmen must be counted among the heroes of the heroic enterprise. They were intrepid in facing the river’s many hazards. They had to pole their batteaus, sharpers, gundolas (a local name) and glorified rafts around rocks and rapids and over ledges between the by-pass canals and sluices. It was a rough and perilous ride. They had to use high skill and be shrewd in calculating risk as they shot through rapids and sluices. Wrecks there were and valuable cargoes lost. Yet these perils did not stop them. They made the trip to Georgetown in three to five days. Not bad time when travel with small loads by horse and wagon was slow, jarring and exhausting. Once in Georgetown many boatmen dismantled their boats, sold the lumber for a good price and walked back home. Some boatmen with more valuable boats, like the “sharper,” did pole their way back to Cumberland. It took ten to twelve days of laborious poling against the current to get back home. They also carried profitable cargo to settlements up river on the return trip. With a little bit of luck they came home with cash padding their pockets.

Although the Patowmack Company ran in the red for most of its career, the boatmen using its canals plied their trade for a good three and a half to four decades until the C & O Canal Company came on the scene in 1828 and began building a continuous and unobstructed canal to Cumberland. The C & O Canal was the direct inheritor of Washington’s Potomac project and carried its cause forward.

During its time the Patowmack Canal did realize to some degree Washington’s vision of the Potomac route to the western country. Goods from the extensive Potomac watershed and from the Ohio country did move up and down the route. Even furs from the Missouri country reached Georgetown. The disadvantage was that goods to and from the Ohio country had to be carried overland across the continental divide to navigable streams in the Ohio watershed. By later standards the trade along the 200 to 220 mile run along the Potomac route was distinctly limited but it was not insignificant at the time. It did establish an early link between the eastern coastal and the western regions.

The Patowmack Company was innovative in introducing a working system of canal locks into the new country’s until then primitive transportation network. Navigation on the Potomac was now possible for a month or two each year when water levels provided sufficient draft for the boats. Transport on the river, despite its limitations, was far better and more efficient in the volume and weight of goods carried than carriage along the bad roads and trails in the wilderness. Washington spoke of one road in the Cumberland area as “the worst road ever trod by man or beast.”

It is worth remembering that the Patowmack Canal belonged to the age of the horse and boats propelled by hand or sail. Advanced canal technology and the advent of the steam-powered railroad had not arrived. With this in mind the Patowmack Canal was no mean achievement.

The 19th century transportation revolution was approaching but was still in the future. Washington would have welcomed the new technologies and the age of steam as his patronage of Rumsey made clear. In any case, Washington’s vision and perseverance was needed to energize and unify the new American republic. As Alexis De Tocqueville noted, a democratic people needs the challenge of higher goals and lofty visions rising above its preoccupation with satisfying daily material needs.

Washington provided a powerful and inspiring example of a courageous leader with such a vision and whose plans and single-mindedness resulted in effective action. Although the Potomac route was his passion, he could not monopolize the action. The way was left open for others to excel and the opportunity was there to take on a piece of the action.

George Washington chose to be the American republic’s first citizen and eschewed kingship. He won great authority but not absolute power. He did not seek it. Indeed, the actions of others who came after him fulfilled his vision beyond his dreams. The great routes westward and the new technologies that brought them about were realized not long after his death and the United States was on its way to becoming the world’s leading nation.

-- Carl Linden


1) Joel Achenbach, The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
2) Alexander Crosby Brown, “The Potomac Canal: America’s Greatest 18th Century Engineering Achievement,” reprint by the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society from Virginia Calvacade, Vol. 12, 1963, pp. 40-47.
3) Wilbur E. Garrett and Kenneth Garrett, “George Washington’s Patowmack Canal: Waterway that Led to the Constitution,” National Geographic, Vol. 171, No. 6, June 1987, pp. 716-753.
4) Lynn Doney Howlett, “The Patowmack Canal: From Canal to Constitution,” The Virginia Canals & Navigations Society, revised 2nd edition, October 2001. 28pp.
5) Walter S. Sanderlin, The Great National Project: A History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946. See chapter II. “Predecessors of the Canal,” pp. 22- 44.

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