Canal History: Canal Era from the 1830s-1870s

Once the C&O Canal won its court case with the B&O Railroad for the right of way at Point of Rocks, construction began in earnest toward Cumberland in 1832. The Canal was delayed by financial overruns and an Asiatic cholera epidemic, but laborers persevered. Another obstacle came in the form of a difficult traverse at the Paw Paw Bend section of the Potomac River. After weighing options, the Canal Company decided in 1836 to build a one-mile tunnel. It was a major engineering feat that required 12 years to complete, and two years later, in 1850, boats could pass the Canal’s complete length from Cumberland to Georgetown.

The Canal raised land values and provided jobs during construction. After completion, it also created markets for goods and services made possible by Canal transport and lowered the cost of shipping commodities such as flour, wheat, and corn. In the peak year of 1850, nearly 280,000 barrels of flour went to market via the Canal. By far, the biggest economic benefit of the Canal was coal transport. Cumberland mines helped to supply a rapidly industrializing nation and the Canal was a direct route to Washington. The 1870s was truly a time of prosperity for the Canal, albeit a brief one.