In the early days of the continent of North America, settlers came to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and they began to migrate west. Towns were established across the land. The only access to these towns were by horse or by horse and buggy. The further they went inland, the less access they had to a navigable waterway. Many canals were built to give boat access to these towns to navigable waterways and to the ocean. One of these canals was the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. With the Potomac River unnavigable north of Washington D.C., the canal was built along the north side (Maryland side) of the Potomac River. It was going to allow boats to go from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River in what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In the early years of the canal, business was booming. Towns like Brunswick, Maryland and Williamsport, Maryland benefitted from the canal. Barged were pulled by mules along what was called a tow path through various locks, a place where boats entered to adjust to the different water levels, along the canal. Each canal lock was operated by a family who was given a house and lived at the canal lock (some families were responsible for numerous locks if they were close together) year round. Boats were pulled from the entry of the canal in Georgetown in Washington D.C. all the way to… Cumberland, Maryland. Through the years, there were floods, and many of these floods did damage to the canal.
Although it is called the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the canal never made it to the Ohio River. The canal was to follow the Potomac River to the town of Grantsville, Maryland where it was to go north into Pennsylvania and cross the Eastern Continental Divide. The section between Cumberland, Maryland and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was never built. Why?
The company that built the canal ran out of money. There was also another thing. What was that?
When they railroad began in Baltimore, Maryland, the railroad was able to get to towns much faster than boats. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad built rail lines to the Maryland towns of Point of Rocks and Brunswick and the West Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry, all three of which were served by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The Western Maryland Railway built lines to the Maryland towns of Williamsport and Hancock which are two other towns served by the canal. The railroad had stations near the town center making the railroad much easier to access, and a waterway is not required to build the railroad. You can say that the railroad was partly to blame for the demise of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Today, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is in ruins with a few sections preserved in the way it looks when it was a navigable canal. It is now owned by the National Park Service. The tow path remains and is used as a hiking trail from Georgetown to Cumberland. Some access points to the park require a fee.
As you walk along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, you see what was once a thriving waterway that was never completed. Much of the canal basins are filled with trees. You see the ruins of the locks. You see what remains and is now being reclaimed by nature. You see a canal that was ruined by the railroad.