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Steamboats on the C&O Canal

While it has generally been assumed that there was little use of steam-powered boats on the C&O Canal, recent research has indicated otherwise. Interest in the use of steam existed from the beginning. In 1829, at the first annual meeting of the canal company, its president, Charles Fenton Mercer, spoke optimistically of the possibility of one day using steam. Subsequently the canal company's first chief engineer, Benjamin Wright, in his recommendations for packet boats on the canal, mentioned the possibility of adding a small steam engine and wheel at the stern to help propel the boats. He concluded, however, that such an addition would not be very practical because of the space the engine would take and heat it would produce. When the company sought proposals in 1830 for boats to operate on the canal, both steam and otherwise, the Baltimore firm of Alexander Cummins and Andrew Armstrong made an offer to build boats and steam engines, although nothing seems to have come of this contact. (Unrau, 332).

In 1831, a general committee was set up to explore the possibility of steam navigation on the canal and river. Considerable attention was paid at this time by canal company directors and investors to experiments with the use of steam on European canals. Despite this early intense interest, the first rules and regulations for boats on the canal specifically excluded steamboats. (Unrau, 334-335) Interest was stimulated again in 1833 by experiments in steam navigation on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (Unrau, 341). This led to a company decision to suspend tolls for a year on "the best" steam packet boat designed and built to operate on the canal, "the speed of which shall not be less than eight miles per hour." (Unrau, 343). Apparently, however, this did not actually result in a steam-powered boat operating on the canal.

The use of steam tugs in the river at Big Slackwater was considered in February, 1837, and discarded because of the anticipated maintenance costs. Experiments on the Delaware and Raritan Canal in 1839 again raised interest in C&O steam navigation, especially as this coincided with the arrival on that canal of a boat using Swedish engineer John Erickson's screw propeller design. (Unrau, 343) Despite continued interest and contacts with Erickson concerning the possible use of steam on the C&O, actual steam navigation on the canal does not appear to have occurred until the late 1840s when permission was granted to Samuel W. Dewey to run a steam packet service and to Lemuel Williams to use steamboats to pull canal freighters. By 1850, N. S. Denny & Company was operating steam tugs on the canal. (Unrau, 345)

It must be noted that it was always stipulated that steamboats must not damage the sides of the canal. Experiments with steamboats here and in Europe, always included information on the effect of the boats' wake on the canal berms. Generally speaking, however, the issue of whether steamboats with their greater speed definitively did or did not damage berms was never ultimately laid to rest. In 1860, because damage to the canal was believed to have been done by the steam packets, the canal company determined to ban them beginning September 1. However, a petition resulted in a reversal of the ban but the establishment of special rules including those that the boats not travel faster than four miles per hour nor draw more than three feet of water. Additionally, the steam packets would not have right of way over the canal freighters and would have to pay the regular toll-a significant change given that the packets often, both before and at times afterwards, had permission to operate toll-free. (Unrau, 357)

A steam packet service run by the New York-based company of W. R. L. Ward operated in the 1850s, and, for a couple of years, a steam packet boat named the Congress was operated by Volney Purcell. Interestingly, the canal company had to forbid the sale of liquor from the Congress as a result of complaints by Montgomery C. Meigs that his men working on the Washington Aqueduct at Great Falls were sometimes disorderly due to the effect of alcohol that they were purchasing from the packet. (Unrau, 356) Other packets operated in the late 1850s, primarily between Georgetown and Harpers Ferry.

While steamboat explosions with significant loss of life were a major problem in the first half of the 19th century (resulting in important Supreme Court cases and the steamboat acts of 1838 and 1852), there is no record of any such accident on the C&O. (Ward) There were collision accidents, however, such as that in 1855 when a steam packet collided with a freighter and sank; and in 1858 when two packets collided with significant damage to both. (Unrau, 356)

Steam packet boat service surged again after the Civil War, with boats being limited to speeds not in excess of five miles per hour and paying tolls of five cents per mile. But by 1870 the packets were losing out to the B&O Railroad and appear to have disappeared forever about this time. Subsequently, the only passenger boats were occasional excursion boats that sometimes operated between Georgetown and Great Falls or on other parts of the canal, such as down to and through the tunnel from Cumberland.

Although there are references to experimental steam freighters in 1857, 1862, and 1871, definite regular use of steam-powered boats to carry coal does not appear to have taken place until the 1870s. Beginning in 1873 with one boat, the steam fleet had grown to 16 by 1878. Of those 16, a dozen were owned by coal companies and the remaining four were apparently privately owned. In 1879, there were 19 steam freighters that made 272 trips on the canal, carrying a total of 26,428 tons of coal. (Unrau, 358-359)

Henry Hall in his 1882 Report on the Ship-Building Industry of the United States-a classic resource on the subject-states the following in Chapter Six with regard to the C&O Canal:

The use of steam freighters on the C&O Canal appears to have ended with the great flood of 1889. There is no evidence that any steamboats that may have survived that catastrophe resumed operation in 1891 when repairs were completed by the newly-formed receivership and the canal reopened.

-- Karen Gray


Hall, Henry. Report on the Ship-Building Industry of the United States. This 1882 work was reprinted in 1970 by Library Editions, New York, ISBN 9780843200133.

Unrau, Harlan D. History of the C&O Canal. This massive volume of 850 pages was published by the Government Printing Office this fall and should be available in visitors centers in the spring of 2008. It contains 12 of the 16 monographs written by Unrau, a National Park Service historian, during his years with the C&O Canal in the mid-1970s. During the past two years a number of volunteers have worked on transcribing the handwritten and typed pages, making its publication possible for the first time. The twelve monographs included are the ones specific to the C&O Canal. The others, currently being transcribed, provide more general background.

Ward, John K. "The Future of an Explosion," American Heritage magazine, Jan. 1989. This article on the legal significance of the steamboat explosion problem is available online at www.americanheritage.com (search using its title).

The source of this article is Along The Towpath, Vol. 39, No. 4, December 2007, published by the C&O Canal Association.

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