Patowmack Canal

Patowmack Canal (HM2CIG)

Location: McLean, VA 22102 Fairfax County
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Country: United States of America
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N 38° 59.711', W 77° 15.189'

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Great Falls Park

—National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior —

George Washington had a marvelous idea—turn the Potomac River into a navigable waterway linking the East Coast with the Ohio River Valley. To do so, the Patowmack Company, which he helped form, dredged portions of the riverbed and built a series of skirting canals to bypass five falls along the Potomac River. Great Falls, where the river drops 76 feet in less than a mile, was the most difficult to bypass. Starting in 1785, work crews used black powder to blast through rugged cliffs and built five locks to raise or lower boats past the falls. The canal was completed in 1802—about two years after Washington died—and remained in service until 1830. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal bought the Patowmack charter and kept Washington's waterway dream alive until 1924.


Matildaville served as construction headquarters and home for the canal superintendent, hired hands, indentures servants, and slaves. The small town had a gristmill, sawmill, foundry, inn, and market.

As a young surveyor and military officer, George Washington foresaw the commercial and trade potential of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. He presided over the canal project until he became the first US President in 1789.

The Pawtomack Canal's route skirted five falls, continued on to the river's

headwaters, and then by land for 65 miles to Ohio River waters.

Follow the Pawtomack Canal trail to see the partially restored walls of Lock 1.

Steady Flow of Goods
Thousands of boats traveled through carrying flour, whiskey, tobacco, and iron downstream and cloth, hardware, firearms, and other products upstream. The trip took three to five days down to Georgetown and 10 to 12 days back to Cumberland, Maryland.

Trace the shape of this reproduced mason's mark that can be seen at the partially restored walls of Lock 1. Why did stone masons leave their mark? Masters masons were granted marks from a stonemason's guild for their technical skills in the craft. Marks were also used to track production and payment, and incidentally left a permanent impression, or signature by the mason. The red Seneca sandstone came from Maryland nine miles upstream.

Re-enactors pole a riverboat through a remnant of the Patowmack Canal. The boats, usually tapered at both ends, were up to 70 feet long and seven feet wide. Crude log rafts also were used.

The Potomac Company introduced...a technology that was subsequently used by dozens of canal companies on thousands of miles of canals.
Robert J. Kapsch, Canal History and Technology Proceedings, Volume XXI, 2002
Placed ByNational Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Saturday, October 20th, 2018 at 5:02pm PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)18S E 304871 N 4318657
Decimal Degrees38.99518333, -77.25315000
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 38° 59.711', W 77° 15.189'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds38° 59' 42.66" N, 77° 15' 11.34" W
Driving DirectionsGoogle Maps
Area Code(s)540, 703, 571, 202
Closest Postal AddressAt or near Old Carriage Rd, McLean VA 22102, US
Alternative Maps Google Maps, MapQuest, Bing Maps, Yahoo Maps, MSR Maps, OpenCycleMap, MyTopo Maps, OpenStreetMap

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