Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Location: Potomac, Maryland

Webpage: National Park

General Description: The interest in constructing a canal to improve the navigability of the Potomac River from Washington D.C. to the Ohio River began in 1785 when George Washington founded the Potowmack Company to construct five skirting canals around the falls on the Potomac River.  This improved navigation heading downstream, but poling a boat upstream was still difficult.  The Erie Canal threatened traders south of New York City so President James Monroe signed the bill chartering the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1825.  Free from taxation the canal was to have 100 miles completed in five years and the rest in 12 years with a current of no more than 2 miles per hour.  Only the eastern 184.5 miles were ever completed because of the advent of the B&O railroad.  From the groundbreaking in 1828, the canal was opened in sections until 1850 when the last section was opened to connect the Cumberland to Washington D.C.  The canal operated until the 1920s.  The canal consists of 75 locks with the largest concentration of locks (7 locks) are at the Great Falls of the Potomac River, a 2.5 mile stretch.  There was also a towpath along the canal for the mules that pulled the boats and houses for the lockkeepers and their families.  Life along the canal was a rough and independent life for the families that lived their lives on the canal.  Today the National Historical Park consists of many sections of the canal and along with other foundations, state parks, and county parks the entire 184.5 miles of the canal is open to visitors to hike and bike along the tow path.  There are five visitor centers along the canal: Georgetown Visitor Center, The Great Falls Inn Visitor Center, The Brunswick Visitor Center, Ferry Hill Place, The Williamsport Visitor Center, The Hancock Visitor Center, and The Cumberland Visitor Center.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) We only saw a small part of the canal located at The Great Falls Inn Visitor Center.  As the name implies, the Visitor Center is inside the Great Falls Inn which was used by travelers on the canal to purchase supplies and stay over night.  The NPS has done a good job restoring the old inn which includes some very interesting exhibits about the history and life on the canal.

VisitorCenter

2) For an fee, you can also ride a boat as it is pulled into one of the working locks and then upstream along the canal for a short distance.  While we did not ride on the boat, we enjoyed watching them work the lock which was surprisingly simple in operation.

BoatInLock

3) From the Inn it is a short hike along the tow path to the Great Falls on the Maryland side of the river.  There is a long boardwalk that takes you over to the side of the Great Falls.  They journey over to the falls crosses a unique habitat of grasses and shrubs that can be found nowhere else.  It also crosses two spectacular falls that were amazing to look at from the bridge over them.  However, this is only a prelude to the Great Fall itself which is truly impressive.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that kayaks were able to successfully navigate down these falls.

Prelude MainEvent   Interlude

4) It was also interesting and amazing to learn that the Potomac River has flooded in the past with water up to the second story of the Inn!!  I cannot imagine what the falls would have looked like with that much water flowing over it.

5) We also stopped at two more locks downstream from the Great Falls where we saw restored Lockkeeper Houses that you can rent to stay the night.

LockkeeperHouse

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