Canal History: Early Canal Construction

Early canal construction by the Patowmack Company consisted of building navigable skirting canals on the Potomac River around some of its formidable rapids at Harpers Ferry, Seneca, Little Falls and especially Great Falls.

Probably the greatest challenge to American engineers was the skirting canal at Great Falls, where the Patowmack Company blasted through solid rock on the Virginia side. The Great Falls locks were applauded in European technical journals as engineering feats of their time. With skirting canals in place, a keel boat could travel from Cumberland to Georgetown in about four days.

While the skirting canals provided a viable method for transporting Antietam Ironworks pig iron from the Antietam Creek area and “Potomac marble” from a quarry near the Monocacy River, the skirting canals never justified their expense. Unpredictable river conditions, the difficulty of returning boats back up the river, and the success of the Erie Canal eventually started the push for a totally separate canal project adjacent to the Potomac.