Learn about America’s greatest (but unsuccessful) engineering feats with this forgotten channel


Not all great technical feats in history have been successful. While the Panama Canal is a testament to American engineering and a largely successful enterprise, there were also American canals built before that that turned out to be failures.

Although the C&O Canal was not the failure of the old Patowmack Canal, it was ultimately unable to stand the test of time. Today it is a great historical attraction in the Washington, DC area that everyone should visit. One of the most eye-catching canals in the world is the Corinth Canal in Greece (although it hasn’t had much financial success).


Importance of Canals and Old Patowmack Canal

At the time of American independence, the cheapest means of transportation (by far) was water. This was long before railroads, highways and trucks. To open up the country and expand it, it was important to network the country with a channel system.

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

George Washington used his influence to push the project forward and the first section of the canal was opened in 1795. But this was never viable and the canal was abandoned in 1828 – one of the first major engineering projects Americans, but unsuccessful.

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

Related: A guide to exploring Amsterdam’s charming canals

The History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

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

  • Replaced: The Patowmack Channel
  • Operated: 1831 to 1924
  • Length: 184 miles or 297 kilometers

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

A major improvement of the C&O Canal over the ill-fated Patowmack Canal is that it could operate during the driest months of the year when the old canal could not operate. The Patowmack Canal could only operate about 45 days a year. While the first part of the C&O Canal opened in 1828, it was not until 1850 that it was fully completed.

  • Canal locks: 74 canal locks
  • Aqueducts: 11 Aqueducts
  • Culverts: More than 240 culverts
  • Tunnel: The paw paw tunnel

The primary use of the C&O Canal was to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains.

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

Related: The Kiel Canal in Germany: The busiest canal in the world

Visit the C&O Canal Ruins Today

Today, the C&O Canal is managed and preserved as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. A path follows the old towpath. Today, hundreds of the original structures remain, including locks, locks and aqueducts. The C&O Canal Trust is a non-profit partner of the NPS and works to preserve and enhance the historic and recreational heritage of the park.

  • Opening hours: From sunrise to sunset every day

The park has a number of visitor centers and their hours vary greatly depending on the season. Refer to National Park Serve website for current hours.

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

  • Leg 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 to take only two years to build when construction began in 1836 (it was not opened until 1850).

Visitors can explore the Paw Paw Tunnel – the NPS recommends bring a flashlight. See the escape holes, rope burns, rub rails, plus the brass plaques 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 scenic views of the Paw Paw Bends.

  • Lat and Long: 39° 32′ 29.6902″ N, 78° 27′ 34.8800″ W

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


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