by (former U.S. National Team athlete and coach) Bill Endicott
Did you know that before he was President of the United States, George Washington was an accomplished canoeist and president of the Potomac Company that designed and built the Feeder Canal where we train today?
And did you know that the Feeder Canal, along with other canals the Potomac Company built, most notably the one at Great Falls, coupled with similar projects in other parts of the country, touched off legal issues involving interstate commerce that led to the creation of the US Constitution?
Well, it’s all true and here’s the story. It’s an amazing one of persistence on the part of George Washington. Time and again Washington was involved in efforts to open up the Potomac as a gateway to the West. He didn’t let failing companies, the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution, and even being elected President of the United States keep him from returning to his vision.
I am indebted to correspondence with Dan Guzy and Dan’s book “Navigation on the Upper Potomac River and Its Tributaries” (Available from the C&O Canal Association) as well as Walter Sanderlin’s book, “The Great National Project” as the sources for much of what I’ve written here.
One of George Washington’ most long-standing dreams was to use the Potomac River as a way to open the West to commerce. Roads were hard to build and maintain in those days, since land had to be first cleared of trees before constructing roads and weather and wear continually damaged them. Rivers offered much cheaper and quicker transportation.
Washington, born in 1732, took his first canoe trip down the Potomac in July or August of 1754 and noted the places where great obstacles would have to be overcome to make the river navigable.
A few years later, he did surveying work for the Ohio Company (chartered in 1749), which was established for the purpose of developing trade and depended on the Potomac for commerce. The French and Indian wars (1755-63) led to the company’s decline, however.
Someone else who also boated down the Potomac was Thomas Johnson, a future governor of Maryland. In 1770, he proposed a river improvement plan and with Washington’s help, the Virginia assembly approved the plan in 1772. But Johnson failed to get the Maryland assembly’s endorsement, due to resistance from Baltimore merchants and that killed the project.
In 1774, a gent by the name of John Ballendine devised a plan to improve the Potomac River and began building a canal around Little Falls using English canal workers. This work was endorsed by Washington, Johnson and other prominent Virginians and Marylanders. But before Ballendine’s canal was finished, he left the area due to pressure from his unpaid debts.
Washington then was swept up in the US Revolution (1775 — 1783), which took him away from the area for 8 years. When he returned in 1784, he found that Ballendine had died in 1782 and not much work had been done on the Little Falls canal.
In 1785, Washington became the first president of a new company to develop Potomac navigation, called the Potomac Company. It had received a charter from the assemblies of both Virginia and Maryland.
It was Washington’s leadership that was the primary reason this company was successful in getting political approval and in constructing navigational works. The Potomac Company built a series of “skirting canals” around Little Falls, Great Falls and several other rapids, thus making the Potomac navigable to 60-foot long, 10 feet wide “bateaux” and flatboats that drew a foot and half of draft or less.
In 1785, Washington visited Little Falls with a survey team, and while we can’t prove it, he probably also visited the site of the Feeder Canal at that time.
The Potomac Company’s Little Falls skirting canal started where the Feeder starts today and ended where Ballendine had worked, or about where Fletcher’s Boat House is now.
Before the Potomac Company could begin construction and operations along the Potomac, issues arose as to exactly who owned the river – Maryland or Virginia. To deal with these issues of interstate commerce, Washington convened a meeting at his estate in early 1785 and produced the Mount Vernon Compact, whereby Maryland and Virginia worked out a way of accommodating each other.
Washington hoped to produce similar agreements between other states that bordered the two, namely, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina by convening the Annapolis convention in 1786. But not enough people showed up for a quorum at that convention and it was adjourned with a new convention to be held in Philadelphia the next year, in 1787.
The original premise of the Philadelphia convention, over which Washington presided, was simply to amend the Articles of Confederation. But it soon became evident this would not work, so the Articles were junked and the US Constitution was born, the longest continuously operating constitution of any nation today.
Before the Little Falls canal was completed, Washington was elected President of the United States in 1788 and had to resign the presidency of the Potomac Company in 1789 in order to assume office. He served as US President from 1789-1797. But even while the was US President, Washington actively followed the progress of the Little Falls canal, coming out for an onsite visit on at least one occasion.
Laborers for the canal were hard to find because most people in the area were occupied with farming. Eventually, however, a combination of indentured servants, Irish immigrants and slaves was recruited to do the work.
The Little Falls canal and its first locks were completed in early 1795 and scholars believe that the stone walls of the Feeder Canal that you see today were almost certainly put there by the Potomac Company during that time and have remained relatively untouched since.
Washington died in 1799, and thus did not live to see the completion of his bigger canal project, the Great Falls canal, so navigation of the Little Falls canal was the greatest achievement of the Potomac Company that he did live to see.
The Potomac Company completed all of its initial skirting canals in 1802 and the Potomac was then navigable for 220 miles, from the mouth of the Savage River to the tidewater.
In 1828, the Potomac Company went out of business and was superseded by the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Company, which inherited the Potomac Company’s charter. The C&O Canal Company wanted to build a whole new canal running parallel to the Potomac and not just use the Potomac where possible. Why? Because during the summer the Potomac was sometimes so low that river travel was impossible.
On July 4, 1828 construction of the C&O canal began with President John Quincy Adams presiding over a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site of top of today’s Feeder Canal. The C&O built the Rubble Dam, replacing a simpler, much shorter wing dam that the Potomac Company had built to shunt water from the Potomac down into the canal.
The C&O left the top part of the Potomac Company’s canal untouched but used it as a feeder canal for the new canal they were constructing. That’s the Feeder Canal that we use today.
But starting at today’s Lock 5 and running down to what is now Fletcher’s, the C&O Canal Company followed the bed of the Potomac Company’s Little Falls canal, but widened and deepened it. They also extended the canal all the way into Georgetown. And, of course, they extended it in the other direction all the way out to Cumberland. The C&O Canal operated up to 1924.
So, as you start to push off one of those rocks on the Feeder Canal, just remember, you’re pushing off a piece of US history put there at the behest of George Washington, another one of the region’s famous canoeists. If it were not for George Washington, you would not be training on the Feeder Canal today!