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Presidents and the C&O Canal

The C&O Canal is wonderful for many reasons, but one of them is its vast history. With the White House only a 10-minute walk from the Park, various Presidents have enjoyed the Canal and the Potomac River over the years for both its recreational opportunities and tranquility.

Without further ado, let’s take a stroll through history on the Canal with our former Presidents.

“Moonrise over the C&O Canal”, by Daina Bolsteins

George Washington (1789-1797)
While George Washington never directly interacted with the C&O Canal, he had a famous fondness for the Potomac River. He explored the Potomac in depth, and this exploration helped to develop his love for the river. It also led to the eventual creation of the Patowmack Company. This company was founded in order to provide a linkage between eastern markets and the new communities developing west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Washington’s plans to use the river as a transportation system were put on hold by the Revolutionary War, which placed him directly in the limelight of the newly-founded country. The Patowmack Company was chartered while Washington was in office, but he unfortunately passed away before the project was finished.

The Patowmack Company eventually closed, because it relied too heavily on a very specific water level. Ownership was eventually transferred to the C&O Canal Company, which constructed the stillwater canal that we know and love to this day.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Adams was known as an avid swimmer and has a bit of a comical relationship with the Potomac River. He would usually swim in the nude in the early mornings. One morning, Adams’ clothes were blown away, and he had to hide out until he could sneak back to the White House. A more famous story involves journalist Anne Royall sitting on his clothes and not moving until he’d assent to interviewing with her. Until this point, he had been dodging her requests for an interview. This story may or may not be true but is still entertaining nonetheless.

We’re thankful to Adams because he was the President that initiated the construction of the C&O Canal. Until this point, much freight was handled by the Patowmack Company, which relied on the Potomac River for business. However, the water level was fickle, and the Company was suffering because of this. Adams had the brilliant idea of creating a canal that would run parallel to the river, while also being continuously fed with water. This canal would serve as a more reliable method of transporting materials.

In July 1828, Adams broke ground north of Georgetown for the C&O Canal, which was celebrated with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. President Adams gave a famous speech comparing the new canal to the pyramids of Egypt. This groundbreaking occurred on the same day the B&O Railroad broke ground. These two companies later fought over the land from Point of Rocks to Harpers Ferry, but later compromised and shared it.

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897).
In addition to being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms, Cleveland loved certain parts of the Canal.

He would get away from the stresses of the White House and Washington by taking fishing trips to Lock 22. He enjoyed fishing for bass and would stay at the Pennyfield Inn during these trips.

Sadly, the Pennyfield Inn slowly fell apart over the years and was torn down by the National Park Service in 2009. The lockhouse still stands, however, and there is a sign outside commemorating the memory of the Pennyfield Inn.

If you’re curious about Lockhouse 22, it’s part of our Canal Quarters program. Feel free to spend a night and immerse yourself in the history of this area!

“Pennyfield Lockhouse”, by Jan Branscome

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Theodore Roosevelt was a President known for many things, specifically his beliefs surrounding foreign policy. He was also the inspiration for the teddy bear, which was created in response to a political cartoon at the time depicting President Roosevelt’s compassionate actions on one of his bear hunting trips.

Roosevelt was known within the White House as very energetic and physically active. He particularly enjoyed hiking around the banks of the Potomac and would take advisors along with him. This group of hikers became known as Roosevelt’s “Tennis Cabinet”.

At one point, Roosevelt and his troupe hiked the Virginia side of the river, near where the Chain Bridge is located. By the end of the hike, the men were covered in mud and physically exhausted. They all then took a naked swim in the Potomac to celebrate.

Roosevelt dressed in expedition attire, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

This picture was taken before Roosevelt’s expedition to Africa, and who knows? Maybe he wore it in Arlington as well!

Roosevelt is known for his love of conservation. He wanted to sustain national forests for future generations, and many national parks are dedicated to his memory. He was instrumental in establishing many parks, but one of his more famous efforts involved the addition of land to Yosemite, one of our country’s most famous parks. He also dedicated the Grand Canyon as a National Monument in the early 1900’s, and it was later converted into a National Park.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
After the blizzard of 1996, the Potomac River flooded and devastated much of the C&O Canal. The flood was the result of a rapid temperature increase, which melted the snow and raised the river to dangerous heights.

“High Water Pole near Overlook 3”, courtesy of National Park Service

On Earth Day 1996, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore helped volunteers remove brush and other debris from the Canal towpath. The combination of floodwater and ice did significant damage to the towpath.

Like everyone else, these Presidents loved the C&O Canal, and for good reason! The Canal has been seriously damaged several times, but the dedication of volunteers has helped tremendously in maintaining its beauty.


Gude, Gilbert. “Presidents and the Potomac”. The White House Historical Association. 2 June 1997.

Browne, Allen. “Grover Cleveland Slept Here”. Landmarks blog. 12 March 2011.

National Park Service: Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation. Last updated 16 November 2017.