Notes on Dam #1, the Skirting Canal, and the Groundbreaking for the C&O Canal

Reference in C&O Canal Companion: Mile 5.6

The rubble remains of the first of seven dams
that watered the canal. (CM High photo)

Added to Mile 5.6 in the Updated Edition:

Some of the best kayakers in the U.S. take advantage of the temperate weather to train here year-round, as well as at the warm-water chute at the Dickerson Power Plant (see mile 40.6). This was the upper end of the skirting canal built around Little Falls by the Patowmack Company from 1785-1795. (Washington's diary indicated that a channel still remained from Ballendine's early canal project in 1774-1775.) This is also where President John Quincy Adams broke the first ground for the C&O Canal on July 4, 1828. At the time the Company only planned to extend the Little Falls canal upstream, letting boats enter and exit the canal just below the falls.

To be added

Mile 5.6:

According to the Washington Post, this occasion was the first time that the Marine band played "Hail to the Chief."

Mile 7:

The National Intelligencer reported that on May 29, 1829, the cornerstone was laid for the "first lock" on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, "about 7 miles above Georgetown." This was likely Lock #7, the first lock above Dam #1, where President John Quincy Adams had stuck the first spade into earth the previous summer. (Locks 1-6 in Georgetown and along the route of the skirting canal were likely begun later.) The new President, Andrew Jackson, was on hand to make a few comments, which were not recorded for posterity. And of course the Marine Band and the Masonic Brotherhood were out in full force. The President of the canal company, Charles Fenton Mercer, no friend of Jackson?s, sent his regrets, saying that he was busy preparing the first annual report to stockholders.



Diary entry by President John Quincy Adams,
for July 4, 1828:

July 4.--Independence Day. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal commenced. Between seven and eight this morning I went with my son John to the Union Hotel, at Georgetown, where were assembled the President and Directors of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company; the Mayors and Committees of the corporations of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria; the heads of Departments, foreign Ministers, and a few other invited persons. About eight o'clock a procesion was formed, preceded by a band of music, to the wharf, where we embarked on the steamboat Surprise; followed by two others, we proceeded to the entrance of the Potomac Canal, and up that in canal-boats to its head -- near which, just within the bounds of the State of Maryland, was the spot selected for breaking the ground.

The President of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, with a very short address, delivered to me the spade, with which I broke the ground, addressing the surrounding audience, consisting perhaps of two thousand persons. It happened that at the first stroke of the spade it met immediately under the surface the large stump of a tree; after repeating the stroke three or four times without making any impression, I threw off my coat, and resuming the spade, raised a shovelful of the earth, at which a general shout burst forth from the surrounding multitude, and I completed my address, which occupied about fifteen minutes...

Additional Notes and Sources:

  • See the The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 4. Donald Jackson, and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978, which are available on the Web as a part of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Washington's diary entry of September 22, 1785 describes the land around Little Falls and refers to the earlier canal project of John Ballendine.
  • Ballendine's "scheme" is discussed in Early Chapters in the Development of the Patomac Route to the West, by Mrs. Corra Bacon-Foster, 1912, pages 24-30.
  • See "John Ballendine's Eighteenth Century Map of Virginia," an article by Arthur G. Burton and Richard W. Stephenson appearing in A La Carte: Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases, compiled by Walter W. Ristow of Geography and Maps Division of the Library of Congress, and published by the Library in 1972. This highly informative article ranges far beyond Ballendine's map to discuss his life and work, including his plans to develop the Potomac and James Rivers for navigation.
  • The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, as transcribed by Charles Francis Adams, published 1874-1877, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [See Volume 8 for July 4, 1828 entry--also included in a subsequent single-volume selection edited by Allan Nevins.]



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