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The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. Construction on the 184.5-mile (296.9 km) course began in 1828 and ended in 1850 with the completion of a 50-mile stretch to Cumberland, rising and falling over an elevation change of 605 feet (184 meters) that required 74 locks. A planned section to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River was never built.

Boats in GeorgetownIn 1785, George Washington founded the Potowmack Company to improve the navigability of the Potomac River. His company built five skirting canals around the major falls. These canals allowed an easy downstream float; upstream journeys, propelled by pole, were harder.

Traders south of New York City began to seek their own transportation infrastructure to link the burgeoning areas west of the Appalachian Mountains to mid-Atlantic markets and ports. The canal principally transported coal, and sometimes West Virginia limestone, wood, lumber, sand, and flour.

Map of C and O CanalIn 1938, the abandoned canal was obtained from the B&O by the United States and is now the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal national historic park.

The Story of Mobility in America

Maritime Museums in Historic Towns

Charles F Mercer C&O Canal Great Falls MDBoats on the Canal were supposed to be similar to those on the Erie Canal – 13½ feet wide with a draft of 3 feet, traveling at 2½ miles per hour. Later, the dimensions changed to 14½ feet wide, 90 feet long, with a 5-foot draft, to take advantage of the lock sizes and prism depth. That would permit boats with cargo up to 130 tons. Rafts were also used on the canal, as well as launches and canoes. Farmers would build watercraft which were to last only one trip, and then be sold in Georgetown for firewood.

Mules lasted 15 years and some boatmen would made them swim to the shore

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal BoatSteamboats in 1850, the N S Denny company operated some steam driven tugboats. Records indicate that in the 1879, a single steamboat could go 3¼ mph loaded downstream, 4½ unloaded going upstream, and took 5 to 7 minutes to lock through whether going upstream or downstream and used about a ton of coal per day for operation.

Boatmen and their families were an independent lot often intermarrying within their own group. They frequently fought amongst each other and with lockkeepers over company rules. During winter when the boats were tied up, they lived in their own communities away from others. One boat captain observed that on the canal, women and children were as good as the men.

Boat interiorLife on a freight boat cabins were 10 feet by 12 feet, and housed two bunks, each 36 inches wide, supposedly for one person, but often occupied by two. While most cabin floors were bare, 14 had linoleum covering. The cabins were divided between sleeping quarters and the stateroom by a diagonal wall. The feed box, 4 feet by 4 feet, in the center boat, often doubled as sleeping quarters with a blanket thrown over the feed. Occasionally the deck was used for sleeping.

Cooking was done on a stove, burning corncobs (from the mule feed) or sometimes coal. Washing clothes and children was typically done at night by moonlight, after tying up the boat, along the side of the canal. Food and provisions for the trip (e.g. flour, sugar, coffee, salt pork and smoked meat were bought in Cumberland. Boatmen carried chickens or pigs on the boats and fish caught in the canal also served as food, as well as turtles.

Connect for Travel to Washington DC along the C&O Canal

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