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Canal History

Information about the historic C&O Canal and the people who made it work.

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Karen Gray Articles Index

For more than two decades, our Along the Towpath newsletter featured historian Karen Gray’s Accompanied by the Past series. These articles that are a valuable resource for understanding the C&O Canal.

Newspaper ReportsAlleganian masthead (Source: Western Maryland Regional Library):

Contemporary accounts from Cumberland and other regional newspapers concerning the C&O Canal.

Marble column

Potomac Marble column

Potomac Marble:

Paul Kreingold’s article chronicles his search for the quarry that supplied marble for the columns in the Old House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol. He located the quarry along the C&O Canal near White’s Ferry.

Canal boatVideo:

Library of Congress offers Down the Old Potomac, a 12-minute film made in 1917. The movie follows a week-long, 180-mile trip on the canal through the Potomac Valley from Cumberland to Georgetown. The film Includes scenes of the locks in operation, Paw Paw tunnel, coal barges plying the canal, Harpers Ferry, and Great Falls. Also available on  YouTube icon.

Compilations Of Canal Boat Mortgages:

Text: mortgageThese compilations of canal boat mortgages give an insight into the operations of the canal during its heyday.

Mule team
Compilation Of C&O Canal Mule Data:

This compilation pulls information from mortgage documents to give the reader an idea of how much a mule cost.

Canal Boat Registration Documents:

Canal boat registerLists of boats registered to operate on the canal and logs of the boat traffic as it passed Lock 75. Reading these documents you can get a sense of the cargo flow on the canal and the intensity of operations. If you are researching your family history, you may be able to find an ancestor.

Double Boat Report:

This document, written in December 1879, provides a cost analysis of different alternatives for operating canal boats. The author experimented with lashing two canal boats together, using only one crew and one team of four mules to operate the pair. He also analyzes the option of using a steam-powered canal boat to tow a second non-powered boat.

Payroll Records:

Payroll records have been transcribed using documents from the National Archives and the Lilly Lievsay Collection. This list of the men and women who worked on the C&O Canal can yield insights into the nature of the canal.

Research resource:

University of Maryland Archives banner

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company archives are part of the Special Collections at the University of Maryland Libraries. This collection consists of portions of the records of several lawsuits filed against the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company between 1880 and 1939; many of the legal issues raised were not entirely resolved until the early 1940s. The documents in this collection date from 1880 to 1945 with the bulk of the material dating from 1920 to 1943.

Miscellaneous documents:

1973 flyer for a hike opposing the expansion of the Potomac Electric Power Company power plant at Dickerson.

Cumberland Chronicle from May 1972 describing the history of the western terminus of the canal.

Centennial Observer published in Williamsport in May 1962, with articles about local history.

Family portraitFamily Histories:

Stories of the families that lived along the C&O Canal and made it work. William Bauman drew upon personal recollections and public records to prepare these documents


We have books about the canal available for download.

The Geology and Engineering Structures of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, written by William E. Davies.

Charles Ellet Jr. On the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Summer 1828–March 1830, Editors and Authors: Karen M. Gray, Ph.D.; Jeffry Richter, B.A., B.S.; Donald Sayenga

The Story of The Potomac Refining Company, written by Andrew Clemens.

J.P. Mose portrait

J.P. Mose – age 21

Oral History:

We are lucky enough to have audio recordings from people who worked and lived along the C&O Canal.

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Historical resources on social media

Proposed Map of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, including portions never built. The line follows Wills Creek north from Cumberland to Hyndman PA, continues north up Little Wills Creek north and west. It crosses the Eastern Divide, follows Buffalo Creek (just south of Berlin PA) to Garret PA on the Casselman River. It then follows the Casselman river to the Youghiogheny River at Confluence, PA, then to Connellsville PA. (Courtesy of National Park Service.)