Celebrating the C&O Canal and Its Workers
By Nancy Spannaus
June 18, 2018—This post is inspired by the event you see in the picture—a performance of Songs of the Canal and the Sea by an ensemble from the Washington Revels , a very talented musical troupe, on Sunday June 17 at the Great Falls National Park (on the Maryland side). The repertoire varied from songs written for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal itself and the Erie Canal, to songs from the many Irish immigrants who were among those who worked to build both those canals, to a few songs of the sea. The music was performed with gusto, delightful harmony, and equally spirited audience participation.
The C&O Canal should hold a special place in our study of the American economic growth, as it was, in various forms, a project closely connected with the American System. George Washington’s plans for making the Potomac River navigable to the West were based on his desire to “draw lands west of the Allegheny Mountains into the United States and “…bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.” While he didn’t succeed in his larger scheme, his Patowmack Company did build five small canals around five falls in the lower Potomac area, including Great Falls. These canals functioned to transport grain, whiskey, iron and other products down to Washington city. Washington is reported to have frequently raised a glass with the words, “Success to the navigation of the Potomac!”
The Patowmack Company folded in 1828, and ceded its assets and liabilities to the C&O Canal Company. That enterprise broke ground on July 4, 1828, with President John Quincy Adams, one of our nation’s most vigorous proponents of the American System, turning the dirt for construction to begin. The story of how that key infrastructure project got underway can be found in a previous story on this blog.
The C&O Canal was in operation from 1831 to 1924. In addition to its economic functions, it served as a critical lifeline for Union troops during the Civil War. Confederate efforts to permanently shut the canal failed. Among the targets which survived is the Monocacy Aqueduct pictured here, a beautiful and nationally renowned structure supervised by Benjamin Wright, the chief engineer for the C&O and the Erie Canal. While I do not know whether President Lincoln ever travelled on the Canal, he surely understood its importance to fulfilling his commitment to save the Union.
A National Park
After the Canal went out of operation in 1924, it soon became the object of citizen efforts to preserve it as a national park. By then it was the property of the B&O Railroad, which had bought it in 1889, and was in danger of being sold off to private investors. In 1938, under President Roosevelt’s direction, that danger was averted when the Reconstruction Finance Corporation purchased the Canal property for $2 million. According to the Canal Trust, the RFC then proceeded to hire workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to desilt and beautify the canal from Georgetown to Great Falls for the purposes of public recreation. The CCC selected an African-American company, which put 400 young men to work for four years doing the work.
The FDR administration’s original plan involved building a Memorial Parkway west on the park lands, but this idea was eventually shelved through the aggressive leadership of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who waged a vigorous campaign for a park. It wasn’t until 1971 that President Nixon signed the legislation designating the C&O Canal property a National Historic Park.
A visit to the park features spectacular views of the Falls, of which this picture, taken by me as we traversed the overlooks last Sunday, is a small sample. The park also offers a canal boat ride on the Charles F. Mercer (named after the Virginia political leader who served as the first President of the C&O Canal), when water levels permit. Currently, construction projects at the Park have put that feature on hold.
As beautiful as this historic park is, I cannot help but regret that our current generation has yet to create great projects of national infrastructure which future generations can celebrate. The C&O Canal National Park should not evoke nostalgia, but rekindle our commitment to meet the challenges of our day with the transportation technologies of the future.
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