The Potomac River is the only East Coast river that bisects the Appalachian Mountains. As such, in the early days of the Republic, it was “considered the best route for Western trade.”
George Washington called it the “nation’s river” and envisioned it as a major trade route. That assumed we could overcome natural obstacles; the most significant was the Great Falls.
In 1784, Washington convinced the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia that a series of canals to facilitate transportation on the river would be a great idea. “As the first president of the Potomac Company, he oversaw the building of skirting canals, locks, and channels on the Potomac River,” according to the Library of Congress.
The Potomac canal project, the most ambitious civil engineering project in America in the eighteenth century, was not finished until 1802, making 220 miles of the Potomac between the Savage River and Washington, D.C., navigable for trade.
By the 1820s, a proposal was made to build a permanent artificial canal along the river from the nation’s capital all the way to the Ohio River. The rights of the old Potomac Company were transferred to a new company incorporated by Virginia and Maryland—the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company—and the new canal project was begun.
But river travel was about to be eclipsed by the railroads. There were two groundbreakings on 04 July 1828: one for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (the Great National Project), the other for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
On 10 October 1850, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal “opened for business along its entire 184.5-mile length from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland.” It never lived up to its name:
By the time that the canal was opened in Cumberland, the B&O Railroad already was well established and operating in the Ohio Valley, and the C&O Canal Company had dropped its plans to continue another 180 miles westward to Pittsburgh.
About the Potomac
Native Americans had more than one name for the river. It wasn’t until 1930 that the Board on Geographic Names began the process of giving the river a permanent name. They collected about 95 variants, such as
… versions of traditional American Indian names like “Cohongaroota River,” colloquial nicknames like “Turkey Buzzard River,” and even local family claims like “Elizabeth River.” They also listed dozens of potential spellings of the river’s original name: “Patowomek,” “Potomach,” “Pittomack,” “Pottomeek,” and even “Betomek.”
The Potomac serves as the southern headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It passes through five geological provinces as it flows from its headwaters: the Appalachian Plateau, the Ridge and Valley, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont Plateau and the Atlantic coastal plain.
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