Canal History: Flooding and Its Effects on the Canal

The benefits of water transport put the Canal in business. Ironically, the power of water also contributed to its demise—through several devastating floods of the neighboring Potomac River. In all, 17 floods had washed over the Canal by 1996, but some were certainly worse than others.

Just a year after construction began in 1828, a destructive flood provided an omen for things to come. In 1852, despite efforts to build up the banks, the Potomac rose 64 feet and caused $100,000 worth of damage. For a project that was already fraught with cost overruns, costly flood repairs were not helpful.

Five years later, the Canal was hit by three floods within five months that almost put it out of business. The $220,000 pricetag for maintenance and repairs in 1857 far exceeded the revenues of that year.

In 1889 came the beginning of the end. The flood that year scattered boats along its length and sent lockhouses and sheds into the river. The damage estimate of $1 million was more than the Canal Company could absorb or borrow, so the B&O Railroad took it over in that year.

The Canal was already well into decline when a flood in 1924 put it out of business for good.