Learn About America’s Greatest (But Unsuccessful) Engineering Feats With This Forgotten Canal

Not all the great engineering feats of history have been successes. While the Panama Canal stands as a testament to American engineering and a widely successful endeavor, there were also American canals built before that that turned out to be failures.

While the C&O Canal was not the failure that the older Patowmack Canal was, it was ultimately unable to stand the test of time. Today it is a great historical attraction in the Washington, D.C. region that everyone should visit. One of the most eye-catching canals in the world is the Corinth Canal in Greece (although it was not much financial success).


Importance Of Canals & Earlier Patowmack Canal

At the time of American independence, the most economical (by far) method of transportation was by water. This was a time long before railways and highways, and trucks. To open up the country and expand it was important to network the country with a system of canals.

One of George Washington’s pet projects was the Patowmack Canal which was built to bypass the rapids of the Potomac River upstream of Washington, D.C. It was made up of a series of five inoperative canals in Maryland and Virginia (the most famous is the Great Falls skirting canal).

George Washington used his influence to push the project, and the first section of the canal opened in 1795. But it was never viable, and the canal was abandoned in 1828 – one of America’s first great but unsuccessful engineering projects.

The first section of the canal opened in 1795, and the canal ended operations in 1828.

Related: A Guide To Exploring The Charming Canals Of Amsterdam

The Story Of The Chesapeake And Ohio Canal

After the failure of the Patowmack Canal, another great canal project was undertaken – the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (or C&O Canal for short). It was sometimes even termed the “Grand Old Ditch.”

  • Replaced: The Patowmack Canal
  • Operated: 1831 to 1924
  • Length: 184 Miles or 297 Kilometers

The C&O Canal managed to operate for almost a hundred years and was operational from 1831 to 1924. The canal ran along the Potomac River between D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland.

One major improvement of the C&O Canal over the ill-fated Patowmack Canal is that it could operate during drier months of the year when the older canal couldn’t operate. The Patowmack Canal could only operate around 45 days a year. While the first part of the C&O Canal opened in 1828, it wasn’t until 1850 that it was fully completed.

  • Canal Locks: 74 Canal Locks
  • Aqueducts: 11 Aqueducts
  • Culverts: Over 240 Culverts
  • Tunnel: The Paw Paw Tunnel

The main use of the C&O Canal was transporting coal from the Allegheny Mountains.

By the time it was completed, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had already reached Cumberland, and it was in competition with rail. Another second to the Ohio River was never built.

Related: Germany’s Kiel Canal: The Most Traveled Canal In The World

Visiting The Ruins Of The C&O Canal Today

Today the C&O Canal is managed and preserved as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. There is a trail following the old towpath. Today hundreds of the original structures remain – including locks, lockhouses, and aqueducts. The C&O Canal Trust is a nonprofit partner of the NPS and works to preserve and enhance the historical and recreational of the park.

  • Opening Hours: Sunrise to Sunset Daily

The park has a number of visitor centers, and their hours vary significantly by season. Refer to the National Park Serve’s website for current hours.

One of the most eye-catching remains of the canal is the impressive 3,118-foot or 950-meter Paw Paw Tunnel. It was a canal tunnel located in Allegany County, Maryland. It bypassed the Paw Paw Bends – a six-mile stretch of the Potomac River that has five horseshoe bends.

  • Paw Paw Tunnel Length: 3,118 Feet or 950 Meters

The Paw Paw Tunnel has been called the greatest engineering marvel along the canal. The tunnel was very difficult to build. It was thought it would only take two years to build when construction started in 1836 (it wasn’t opened until 1850).

Visitors can explore the Paw Paw Tunnel – the NPS recommends bringing along a flashlight. Discover the weep holes, rope burns, rub rails, as well as brass plates marking every 100 feet that bring the tunnel’s history to life. After exploring the tunnel, hike the two-mile-long Tunnel Hill Trail and explore the picturesque views of the Paw Paw Bends.

  • Latitude And Longitude: 39° 32′ 29.6902″ N, 78° 27′ 34.8800″ W

There is no street address, so visitors should follow the GPS coordinates.

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