George Washington is considered as the man behind the construction of the Patowmack canal. It was during the time after the Revolutionary war that Washington realized that upgraded modes of transport and trade can draw the people from the west of the Allegheny Mountains into the U.S. Washington thought of making an open door through which the produce of those countries will come to the markets of the United States. He understood that the Potomac River could be that open door since it is on the west side. However, there were so many physical and political obstacles to overcome.
Since, Virginia and Maryland bordered the Potomac River, their cooperation was very much necessary for opening the river. It was in 1784 that Washington successfully convinced the assemblies of the two states in order to improve the river from the headwaters near Cumberland and tidewater at Georgetown. Following this, on May 17 the next year the Patowmack Company was formed. The directors and subscribers were selected from the two states. The Mount Vernon Compact, which allowed the free trade on the river, was, agreed upon by the representatives of the states who met at Washington’s home in 1785. Thereafter a convention was held in Annapolis, including the delegates from all the 13 states.
In Virginia, traversing the Potomac River was very difficult because of the uneven flow of the river. The spring rains made the river flood up and on the other hand, the summer droughts made the river impassable. Even shallow draft boats could not travel through the river before. However, the portions of the riverbed were dredged and five areas of falls were skirted. The most difficult task to accomplish was to build a canal to allow the free and natural flow of water without posing any danger.
The construction of the canal started in 1785 and it took around 17 years to complete the construction work of the canal. The construction work was the most complicated near the Great and Little Falls and the work here was done by the enslaved laborers who were hired from their owners. The other parts of the canal were completed by the servants and some enslaved laborers.
The main obstacle the project had to face was financial problems. Eventually in 1828, the Patowmack Company was shut down after turning over its assets to Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. This company abandoned the canal in 1830. They started a new project of constructing an artificial waterway on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.
Today the ruins of the Patowmack canal stand as an attractive site to the visitors.