Canal History: The Mid-Atlantic United States in the 1800s

With the states’ independence secured at the end of the American Revolution, the young nation was ready to grow—and everyone was looking west to the Ohio River. Standing in the way was the formidable Allegheny Mountain range.

Although George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and influential Virginians all saw the Potomac River as an important connection between the eastern seaboard colonies and the west, the National Road from Baltimore had already reached the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) and was being used by hundreds of thousands of settlers to travel west.

The road worked for people—but it wasn’t as effective for moving goods. In fact, hauling cargo over land was more than 30 times more expensive than flatwater canal transport. And internal transportation was seen by many as the key to early industrialization. Interest returned in earnest to the Potomac as a gateway to the west.