Today in History: October 10
The C&O Canal
On October 10, 1850, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was completed and opened for business along its entire 184.5-mile length from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. Sections of the canal opened for navigation as they were completed; from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Seneca, Maryland in 1831; then to Harpers Ferry by 1834; to Hancock in 1839; and finally to Cumberland in 1850.
Before the C&O Canal was built, there were many attempts to improve transportation along the Potomac River as it was the only river on the East Coast to bisect the Appalachian mountain barrier and therefore was considered the best route for Western trade. As early as 1749, the Ohio Company of Virginia (a land and trading venture organized by prominent Englishmen and Virginians) established trails and wagon roads along the upper Potomac River Valley, linking it to the Monongahela River (a tributary of the Ohio River).
In 1772, George Washington founded the Potomac Company and proposed constructing skirting canals on both the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac to bypass the river's five worst obstacles to transportation—the most serious being Great Falls. A boat would pole down the river and detour around the rapids and falls by using the skirting canals and locks. The state of Maryland, however, had jurisdiction over the Potomac River and did not support the proposal. In 1784, after becoming a national hero, Washington tried again and finally received the support of both Virginia and Maryland. As the first president of the Potomac Company, he oversaw the building of skirting canals, locks, and channels on the Potomac River.
George Washington died in 1799 and never saw his dream completed. The Potomac canal project, the most ambitious civil engineering project in America in the eighteenth century, was not finished until 1802, making 220 miles of the Potomac between the Savage River and Washington, D.C., navigable for trade.
The Potomac Company had its peak year in 1811, collecting more than $22,000 in tolls and shipping 16,350 tons of goods on 1,300 boats with a value of more than $925,000. But unpredictable currents, droughts, and flooding still made transportation on the river a risky business.
By the 1820s, a proposal was made to build a permanent artificial canal along the river from the nation's capital all the way to the Ohio River. The rights of the old Potomac Company were transferred to a new company incorporated by Virginia and Maryland—the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company—and the new canal project was begun.
The groundbreaking for the "Great National Project," as it was called, took place on July 4, 1828—the same day as the groundbreaking for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. President John Quincy Adams turned the first spade full of earth for the canal at Little Falls, Maryland. From the very beginning, a scarcity of building supplies, labor shortages and unrest, difficulties with excavation, and the high cost of land acquisition slowed down the project. At Point of Rocks, in Frederick County, Maryland, the C&O Canal Company competed with the B&O Railroad for property rights. The ensuing lawsuit delayed the project for four years. The last fifty miles of the canal was delayed another eleven years by serious financial problems and construction of the Paw Paw Tunnel. By the time that the canal was opened in Cumberland, the B&O Railroad already was well established and operating in the Ohio Valley, and the C&O Canal Company had dropped its plans to continue another 180 miles westward to Pittsburgh.
The C&O Canal operated between Cumberland, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., for seventy-four years with peak use in the 1870s. In 1875 canal boats hauled nearly 974,000 tons of freight—mostly coal, flour, iron, and limestone. In 1889, however, a flood destroyed the canal, forcing the C&O Canal Company into bankruptcy. The B&O Railroad took over receivership of the canal and operated it until 1924 when it was destroyed by another flood and then abandoned.
In 1938, the U.S. Government purchased the canalproperty and hoped to restore it as a natural recreational area. Plans changed, however, and in the 1950s the government proposed building a highway on the property. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid outdoorsman, opposed the highway construction and organized a committee to preserve the canal. These efforts led to the creation of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Learn more about the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal:
- Watch an early motion picture of a trip down the C&O Canal in a 1917 film entitled Down the Old Potomac from the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies. Search this collection on the term canal for more on the Panama Canal, the Erie Canal, and the canal that circled the Pan-American Exposition.
- Search the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 using the terms potomac transportation or potomac navigation (match all of these words) to read about George Washington's thoughts about the importance of the Potomac River to western trade. Also search potomac company (match this exact phrase) to read correspondence and diary entries regarding his overseeing of the Potomac Company construction of canals and locks. Other terms to search are potomac, canals, locks, rapids, or falls.
- Search the phrase chesapeake and ohio or c&o canal in the following collections to see related images of this historical waterway.
- An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Epherma
- Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
- Washington as It Was, 1923-1959
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains proceedings and legislation concerning the canal. Search on the phrase potomac company or chesapeake and ohio canal company to find petitions and resolutions for funding of the Potomac Company and the C&O Canal Company.
On October 10, 1845, fifty midshipmen and seven faculty members (three civilians and four officers) inaugurated the first term of the United States Naval School at a ten-acre Army post, Fort Severn, in Annapolis, Maryland. (Its predecessor was the Philadelphia Naval Asylum.) The school had a five-year course with the first and last years spent at the school and the middle three years at sea.
In 1850 the school was placed under the Chief, Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography and renamed the United States Naval Academy (USNA). A consecutive four-year course of study was adopted; summers were spent at sea. In 1892 appointments to the USNA came under the control of Congress.
During the Revolutionary War, American naval forces were organized to fight the British. America's first naval hero, John Paul Jones, defeated a British fleet off the coast of England on September 23, 1779. As early as 1783, Jones proposed an academy for the education of naval midshipmen. However, the idea lacked congressional support. After independence from Great Britain, the navy was disbanded in order to save money.
Yet less than a decade later, President George Washington ordered construction of a fleet of ships to protect American merchant vessels from the threat of piracy on the high seas. The United States, the Constellation, and the Constitution were among the new ships commissioned in 1797.
When the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was established in 1802, further discussion about a comparable naval educational institution ensued, but for almost fifty years little progress was made towards this goal. During President James Polk's administration (1845-49) an academy was finally formed under the guidance of Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft.
Bancroft appointed Commander Franklin Buchanan the first superintendent of the Naval Academy. During the Civil War, Buchanan served the Confederacy.
One of the Naval Academy's most famous graduates, Commodore George Dewey, brought great honor to the Navy in his 1898 victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. In his memoirs, Dewey recalled serving under Admiral David Farragut during the Civil War. Farragut, who received his training "on shipboard" prior to the opening of the Naval Academy, remarked to young Dewey, "Now, how the devil do you spell Apalachicola? Some of these educated young fellows from Annapolis must know!" For over one hundred and fifty years, the "educated young fellows" of Annapolis have served their country and the United States Navy.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the board of visitors condemned the Naval Academy's inadequate facilities and recommended a comprehensive plan for rebuilding. Construction on the “New Naval Academy” began in 1899 and old Fort Severn was demolished in 1909. The newly rebuilt and expanded campus reflected the importance of America's navy to the international policies of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Since the Mexican War (1846-48), officers trained at the USNA have served in every major U.S. war. President Jimmy Carter holds the distinction of being the sole Naval Academy graduate elected president and commander in chief.
Women became a part of the USNA in the 1970s. The first woman officer instructor and the first civilian woman faculty member joined the Naval Academy in 1972. The first women midshipmen entered in 1976. Today, approximately 1,200 men and women comprise each incoming class at the 338-acre campus.
American Memory holds a wealth of material on U.S. naval history:
- Documents pertaining to the early U.S. Navy, including letters from George Washington to John Paul Jones, are available through the collections: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 and Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789.
- Listen to "There is no Rank in Sacrifice," a speech by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels honoring Naval Academy graduate Lieutenant F. S. Cork and Gunners-mate Osmond J. Ingram for their bravery in World War I. Listen to this speech found within the collection American Leaders Speak, 1918-1920.
- Find individual recollections of service in the United States Navy. Search the collection American Life Histories: Manuscrpts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 on Navy.
- Locate additional photographs by searching across the American Memory pictorial collections on Naval Academy.