Canal History: Canal Groundbreaking

With the very first shovel full of dirt, construction of the C&O Canal proved to be fraught with difficulty. Groundbreaking for the Canal took place on July 4, 1828 near Little Falls. After much fanfare, lavish meals for attending officials, a boat ride up the Potomac and speeches, President John Quincy Adams dug in—and hit rocks and roots in his first attempts before he was successful.

The groundbreaking was difficult, and was only a sign of the challenges ahead. The Canal company was committed to building 100 miles of Canal in just five years. No large-scale construction companies existed to take on the project. There were no detailed engineering drawings—just lists of written specifications. And in many sections, the raw resources used to build locks were scarce.

Still, Americans were determined to build this waterway west. More than 462 proposals were submitted by close to 100 different contractors. Businesses such as sawmills were established along the route to support construction. It was the beginning of a long, difficult journey.