The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal ran from Georgetown in Washington, D.C. (Mile 0) to Cumberland, MD (Mile 184.5), paralleling the Potomac River. Most of the heavy shipping originated from the western terminus at Cumberland. Boatmen carrying coal, lumber, grain and cement passed through Hancock, Williamsport, Sharpsburg, the Harpers Ferry area and Brunswick on their way to Washington. D.C. where their cargoes were unloaded. A one-way trip usually took 5 to 7 days.
The lifeblood of the canal was its people—the canal builders, boatmen, locktenders, mule drivers and families who lived and worked on the canal. Days were long and life was hard for the many people who made the canal run.
Mules powered the heavy cargo boats by walking along the towpath to "tow" the boats to and from Washington. "Packet" or passenger boats operated as well and were often pulled by horses. The canal had a series of structures for boats to pass through or over—including lift locks, a tunnel, aqueduct bridges and culverts. In addition to strong competition from the railroads, nature often threatened the canal with recurring floods of the Potomac River. A flood in the Spring of 1924 closed the canal permanently for commercial shipping.
"Two Sisters" by John Louis Wellington (1878-1965) Courtsey of the Maryland Historical Society.
Cumberland artist John Louis Wellington (1878-1965) traveled the canal aboard "The Cumberland," an excursion packet, spent time near the boatyards, photographed, sketched and painted numerous watercolors of the C&O Canal in its later years. Wellington captured the busy yet tranquil essence of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal—the boats, the people, the beauty.
Bottom Left Photo
Mule team and driver
Boat emerging from the Paw Paw Tunnel
Travelers aboard an excursion packet ca. 1910