THE PATOWMACK CANAL
THE C & O CANAL
by John Thomson
I use the term "Our Canals" because both of them have played a major role in making our Club what it is today. Had it not been for the original rubble dam, built to divert water from the main stream of the Potomac into the by-pass channel around Little Falls Rapids, the valley between Sycamore and the Maryland shore would have been dry most of the year save for the flow from Walhonding Creek. Broadwater, our placid lake-like area where we swim, fish and do most of our boating, would not exist and the rapids would have been continuous from the upper end of Ruppert Island down to the estuary just above Chain Bridge. These rapids were the barrier to Captain John Smith's upstream ventures in the early seventeenth century -- and the reason that archaic Indians chose to establish their homes on Ruppert Island. The fishing there would have been especially good.
Had it not been for the C & O canal -- and especially its steamers from 1876 to 1998 -- access to Sycamore would have been so difficult -- and time-consuming -- that it is doubtful that hard-working Washingtonians would have made the effort to go out of town that far for recreational purposes. The river bank was open and fishing could occur anywhere. Sycamore Island has long been a part of the Potomac Valley, but it was the canals which made the Club a possibility -- and then a reality. Even today, it is the towpath, and sometimes the canal itself, which provides the means for bringing our heavy materials from the heart of commercial Washington to the wilderness sanctuary of our Island.
There is a fascinating fact of geography which made our canals probable. Washington (and before its establishment, Georgetown and Alexandria) was the westernmost port for ocean vessels on the east coast. It is the city closest to the Ohio Valley and our western territories. The Potomac Valley should have been the east coast's major trade route for dealing with the west -- the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The problem, of course, in geographic terms, was the rapids -- Little Falls, Great Falls, the Seneca Breaks, White Horse Rapids and the Needles at Harpers Ferry and the like -- and the Appalachian Mountains (the Eastern Continental Divide).
The Patowmack Canal Company, organized in the 1780s, was the first such venture in the Americas. In fact, when the canal was being built, there was only one canal operating in England. The fundamental plan of the promoters was to use the river channels wherever possible and to construct by-pass channels only where needed at the major rapids. We've lost the first of these by-passes -- around Little Falls -- because it was absorbed into the C & O Canal, but its entrance into Broadwater is actually the upper end of today's feeder canal, just below the new Brookmont Dam and pumping station which were built in 1957.
The second, and most famous of the by-pass canals is the one at Great Falls on the Virginia side. This canal with six lift locks, which was started in the 1790s and completed in 1802, was considered the major engineering work in America and attracted the admiration of English canal specialists. 1802, the first year the locks were operating, was the only year in which the canal made enough money to pay a dividend.
For our purposes the third by-pass canal, the one around Seneca Breaks, is the last which Sycamore Island canoeists are likely to visit. Running down the Virginia shore, its stonework still stands out, catches the eye, and most of us assume that there must have been locks somewhere off the riffles we paddle. Actually, this by-pass, like the one at Yellow Falls along the Virginia shore and the one at Stubblefield along the Maryland shore, was merely a channel cleared of rocks up or down which the barge people could pole or pull their craft. Mules were not used on the Patowmack canal. Other reminders of the past are the spikes and rings in the rocks of the Mather Gorge, used to pull boats up to the lock entrance, and the man-made channel which runs next to the canal bank just below Lock 8.
Three factors made this, the first of the American canals, a failure. First -- and this was to persist throughout the whole of the Potomac Valley's history -- was the inability to get full cooperation and agreement among the states concerned. Maryland and Virginia authorities took little interest until the Erie Canal was under construction in New York. Second, and seemingly in conflict with the first factor, the enthusiasm developed by the financial success of the Great Falls lift locks in their first operating year led to excessive investments in channels and by-passes up the main river valley and on feeder streams far beyond the use or needs of the times. Third came the water and weather conditions. Relying on the water, as the old Patowmack Canal did, meant that actual use was limited to the ideal weather conditions. Floods and droughts and seasonal variations all meant that the use of the river was limited to "scarcely forty-five days of good navigation" in a year. (Frederick Gutheim, THE POTOMAC, p.195) The canal sank slowly into oblivion.
Maryland reacted quickly to the building of the Erie Canal in New York, deciding to go for a new canal. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company was organized in 1824. Construction was started in 1828 and The Magnificent Ditch was completed to Cumberland in 1850. From the outset it faced difficulties. Baltimoreans, at first supportive when they expected a branch of the canal to that port city, quickly lost interest when this was proved to be impractical. The three, later four, states effected by the Canal -- Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and, ultimately West Virginia -- found parochial interests which put them in disagreement. Most important, the canal started simultaneously with the railway boom. The B & O was launched the same day as the C & O and, in the long run, the railway won out. Mule-drawn barges, economical though they might be, were not effective in competition with the railways and, as with the earlier canal, weather could and did close the C & O down for much of the winter period. Actually, however, it was storms and floods which finally did in the C & O Canal.
There was a burst of energy and optimism in 1876 when the Directors decided to run commercial steamers up and down the canal -- at a safe speed, under five miles per hour. (Our Way-Bill, issued to H. B. Johnston in Cumberland on June 25, 1919, carries the admonition "Speed Limit 4 Miles Per Hour." On July 5, 1919, it was "Examined at Lock No. 22 and found correct" by C.H. Pennfield, Lock Keeper. This is the lock we now incorrectly call Pennyfield Lock.) It was these steamers which carried our founders to the Club. The Flood of 1889, popularly known as the Johnstown Flood for the damage done in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, not only washed our brand new club house off its foundations, it also effectively destroyed the Canal Company. Damages were too extensive. The steamers were never run again. Repairs were made to the canal and to the many damaged aqueducts but expenses were so great that the company went into receivership, never to recover.
The two floods of 1924 -- one hundred years after the company was chartered -- closed down the canal for good. Former Islanders report that the canal was vastly under-used at the time -- as can be seen from the photos of the time showing camping directly on the towpath -- and frequently activities had to be postponed because of a lack of water. It is fascinating, though, that these two floods should have had such an impact. Our ISLANDER accounts of them suggests that neither was particularly wild so far as the Club was concerned. Certainly neither compared to the floods of 1936, 1937 or the three floods of 1942, all of which were truly severe, nor do they compare with the flood of 1972 from hurricane Agnes, which many contemporary Islanders remember well.
With the closing of the canal company the canal itself went through a slow metamorphosis becoming at first railroad property and then, in the 1930s, it was transferred to the US government. In the Eisenhower years it became a National Monument by executive order and finally in 1972 it was reorganized as the C & 0 Canal National Historical Park. Today it is the most heavily used of all our National Parks and, once again, the towpath runs unobstructed all the way from Lock 1 in Georgetown to Feeder Dam No. 8 and Guard Lock No. 8 in Cumberland. The canal itself has been rewatered only in limited areas. The Park Service knows, as the C & O Canal Company discovered, it is uneconomical to consider the complete restoration. I recall that just before hurricane Agnes, restoration costs had been estimated at $4,500,000 and immediately after the storm they jumped to $14,000,000.) We in the Washington area are fortunate in that the canal is watered all the way from Georgetown to Seneca. We can, if we wish, paddle the whole way. We, however, do have to portage each of the 23 locks because the locks can no longer lift us from level to level and the because there are no longer lock keepers in any of the lock houses.