Canal History: George Washington & The Patowmack Company

The origins of navigation along the Potomac began with two of the young nation’s most important leaders. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both believed the Potomac was the best way to reach the Ohio Valley, but it wasn’t until Washington toured the area in 1784 that he became truly excited about developing the route.

In 1785 Washington chartered The Patowmack Company with the purpose of clearing a river channel and building skirting canals around the river’s more turbulent sections. But the country had other plans for Washington. After chairing the Constitutional Convention, Washington was elected as the first president of the United States in 1789. He appointed his friend Thomas Johnson to fill his post as president of the Patowmack Company, but kept an eye on the difficult work being done there.

After two terms, President Washington returned to meetings of the Patowmack Company, but lack of funds slowed down progress, especially the difficult channel around Great Falls. In 1799, at about the same time the Maryland legislature purchased additional stock in the company, Washington passed away. Three years later, the locks at Great Falls were opened and the Potomac at last became a navigable route.