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Maryland's National Register Properties

Photo credit: MHT Files, n.d.
Patowmack Canal Historic District
Inventory No.: M: 29-48
Other Name(s): Patowmack Canal at Great Falls Historic District
Date Listed: 10/18/1979
Location: 9200 Old Dominion Drive (in Virginia) , Potomac, Montgomery County
Category: District
Period/Date of Construction: 1785-1830
Description: The Patowmack Canal at the Great Falls of the Potomac in Virginia is a skirting canal approximately 3/4 of a mile long and containing five locks, a large holding basin, two guard gates, a wing dam, and several other related features. It was constructed by the Patowmack Canal Company between 1785 and 1802 to provide passage around the Great Falls of the Potomac. The canal consisted of a large wing dam at its upper terminus, an upper guard gate, the canal bed, a large holding basin, a lower gate, the five locks including their attendant gates, and a stone jetty at a lower terminus. In addition, the town of Matildaville was to be constructed as an accompanying trade center and headquarters for the Patowmack Company. Significance: The Patowmack Company was organized to construct a canal system making the Potomac River navigable for trade from Georgetown to Harpers Ferry. If the Potomac River could be made navigable, it was a short land passage from Harpers Ferry to the Monongahela or Youghiogheny Rivers and then to the Ohio River, which at the time was a principal route to the west. Canals were to be built at Great Falls, Little Falls, Seneca, Shenandoah, and House Falls. Only at Little Falls and Great Falls were locks required. During this period canals with locks were uncommon in the United States, and thus represented a significant engineering achievement. The Patowmack Canal at The Great Falls of the Potomac was the largest of the five skirting canals on the Potomac. To re-enter the river below The Great Falls, a channel had to be blasted through solid rock. Holes were bored by hand into the rock and filled with blasting powder, and fired. This constituted one of the first uses of explosives in an American Engineering project. Due largely to the influence of George Washington, who envisioned a canal before Revolutionary War, the legislators of Maryland and Virginia passed laws incorporating the Patowmack Company in 1784; Washington served as the Company's first president. Shares in the company were sold to subscribers, including the States of Maryland and Virginia. Thus, the venture was one of the first state-financed internal improvements in the United States. Work on the canal began in 1785 and was completed in 1802, under the direction of several canal engineers, although John Rumsey appears to have been the principal engineer. The Patowmack Company was a financial failure; however, it is significant for its early recognition of the need for an effective means of transportation between the east and west, and the development of canal building in the United States. On August 15, 1826, the bankrupt Patowmack Canal Company dissolved and its charter and official papers passed to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The town of Matildaville lost its economic base with the dissolution of the company, and ceased to function as a community. The Patowmack Canal at The Great Falls survives today as an example of the Patowmack Company's pioneering canal venture in the United States. Although it, and the various structures associated with it, are in ruins, they still constitute significant remains of early canal technology and represent commercial speculation by individuals and states that marked much of the nation's growth.


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