The lesson about the so-called 'Era of Good Feelings' in the Notgrass Exploring America textbook taught us about some of the developments in transportation in America following the War of 1812. Congress developed a three-point plan to encourage economic growth - a tariff to protect American industries from cheaper foreign competition; an effort to stabilize national currency and have a source for loans by creating the Second Bank of the United States; and an aggressive program to improve transportation. This final program involved building roads, canals, and eventually railroads. Better transportation was needed to encourage settlement in the western regions and to more efficiently bring farm products to market. At the time, only a few roads crossed the Appalachians, and they weren't much more than paths cleared through the forest. Roads in the well-settled east weren't a great deal better. City streets were dirt, and country roads were muddy ruts. River transportation was somewhat more reliable, but the varying conditions caused problems.
The Federally-funded National or Cumberland Road was constructed from Cumberland, Maryland west to Wheeling, Virginia; and eventually completed all the way to Vandalia, Illinois. This was the first major federal roads project, and it was debated whether it was constitutional for the federal government to fund transportation projects! My, how times have changed. States took on road and canal projects during these years as well. By the way, did you know why some of our highways in the eastern US are called "turnpikes"? Roads were originally given that name because at certain places along the route, travelers would need to pay a toll which would allow a pike or stake to turn and allow them to pass by the toll station and continue.
The canal projects are what I want to focus on though. Over 3000 miles of canals were built in the USA by 1837. The best known was the Erie Canal in New York. This 350-mile waterway was begun in 1817 and completed in 1825. It was an engineering marvel that connected Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, and cut travel time between the two cities from 20 days to just 6 days. The cost of transporting freight also dropped dramatically and the Erie Canal turned a handsome profit.
Closer to where we live, the C&O Canal was begun in 1828, just west of Washington, DC. The canal finally reached Cumberland, Maryland 22 years later, after delays caused by difficult construction, high costs, labor unrest, and legal battles. The original plan to extend the canal to the headwaters of the Ohio River in Pittsburg had been abandoned by that time. Nevertheless, the canal was another engineering marvel that included 11 multi-arched aqueducts, seven dams, and a 3118-foot long brick-lined tunnel. A total of 74 locks raised and lowered water levels to adjust for the 605-foot difference in elevation between Georgetown and Cumberland.
Thousands of laborers and immigrants constructed the canal, and sadly it meant low wages, poor living conditions, and other hardships for many of them. However, the canal offered many opportunities as well. The operation of canal boats and locks were often family businesses. Also, many business and communities grew up along the banks of the Potomac and people certainly benefited greatly from the increased traffic and commerce along the route. Great Falls Tavern, still standing as a visitor center in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park , is one such business. This hotel opened in 1831, just three years after ground was broken for the canal and original lockhouse. The locktender asked for the hotel in response to travelers' requests for meals and shelter.
|Great Falls Tavern in summer|
Locktenders lived in rent-free houses and were always on duty to respond to the boatman's horn.
|closing the lock gates|
The families or crews that operated the boats often worked 18-hour days and lived in the 12' by 12' cabin space of the boats. They traveled about 360 miles per week in a round trip, and a crew member would earn about $15 per trip, roughly 5 cents per mile. The canal boats were towed by mules.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, first in the nation, began operations in Cumberland in 1842. The railroad eventually continued westward, but the canal company gave up plans to continue expansion of the waterway. In 1889 a flood destroyed the canal, completely halting the boats for 18 months. The canal company went bankrupt and the B&O took over. As the years went by, the canal folk lost their independent ownership of the boats and the locks no longer needed tending as the railroad became the main transport.
Another flood in 1924 further devastated the canal, and in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps began repairs of the locks and aqueducts. A group formed to preserve and protect the canal's resources and develop the area as a park, and finally in 1971 the Chesapeake & Ohio became a National Historic Park. You can find out more about the park and its history here.
See my previous post: Think Back Thursday: C & O Canal History Lesson
Have you visited the C & O Canal or another historic canal site? Leave a comment and let me know, and link up your posts about homeschooling high school here. Visit your neighbors and leave some encouraging comments!
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