The nineteenth century was an incredibly complicated period for the young United States. While the major points of our collective histories in this period are of course Slavery and the Civil War and Western Expansion a major portion of both these issues was the revolution in transportation. When the 13 States unified under the Constitution they were themselves still tied to the seaboard. Yet beyond the Appalachian Mountains was an area nearly three times as large that were open to expansion. At this point the Mississippi River was closed to American shipping, and of course the “powers that be” in the east were very interested in being able to channel shipping towards themselves. Many of the states or corporations in those states were involved in transportation eastward with raw materials and westward with finished goods. New York built the Erie Canal, Pennsylvania built what became the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Maryland had both the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The C&O and B&O both were begun the same day, and had the same basic goal, connecting the Chesapeake Bay area with the Ohio River in either Wheeling or Pittsburg. Both were begun in 1828 on July 4th. The canal never reached its destination in Pittsburg having never attempted to complete construction beyond the original 184.5 mile route between Washington DC and Cumberland Maryland. Through the canal was able to be profitable for a few years following the Civil War, it was unable to continue to compete with the railroads. Eventually its initial competitor the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad purchased the bankrupt canal, to prevent any other railroad from doing so and using the canal’s right of way to parallel to their major line. The canal itself was closed in the early 1920s, but the B&O continued to hang on to the property. By the time the Great Depression hit, the railroad needed federal assistance to keep operating. Eventually, the railroad unloaded the canal to the federal government which was at a loss of what to do with the property for decades until a movement in the mid 1950s led by a Supreme Court justice (in his private life) led to the eventual formation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in 1971.
The photo below is at Williamsport, about 100 miles from Georgetown in Washington DC. Cushwa’s was a major shipper on the canal, dealing primarily in brick, but also coal. Coal was the primary load shipped along the canal, in large part because the canal was never able to enter the Ohio River market. As can be seen from this amazing panoramic photograph even in mid winter the canal is a popular destination for hikers, bikers, and fishermen (and fisher women). Camping is permitted along the canal, and in summer water is provided. All in all, the history and natural value of the canal is a major resource to the capital area.
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