The Significance of the Catoctin Aqueduct in the Story of American Transportation

06/15/2010 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Kate Kelly Author, 'Election Day: An American Holiday, an American History'

Today we take for granted the U.S. Interstate Highway System, our railroads, our waterway transportation methods, and the network of airlines that can take us almost anyplace at any time.

We rarely stop to think about how the story of our country hinges heavily on the types of transportation created to take people west and to bring raw materials and products east. Devising these early transportation methods required great ingenuity of the men of that day, backbreaking labor, and a lot of good luck in coping with adversity.

As early as the 1780s George Washington predicted that waterways were going to be a primary means of transportation. In 1785 he founded the Potowmack Company for the purpose of making the Potomac River more navigable, but progress in water transport was slow. Materials and people could be sent downstream easily but traveling upstream could not be accomplished without mule or man trekking on land to tow the boat.

In the early 1800s there were two breakthroughs: In 1807 Robert Fulton introduced the first commercially successful steam-powered boat, which could travel upriver and down. Then in 1825 the Erie Canal was completed, connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It led to the growth of cities along its path, and it brought down freight costs in the area.

The commercial success of the Erie set off a canal-building frenzy, as investors realized that these artificial waterways could link interior areas to existing rivers and lakes. The plan for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was to connect Washington, D.C. with Cumberland, Maryland, and eventually, Pittsburgh.

By 1850, the completed sections of the C&O Canal ran 184.5 miles. Culverts took the canal across small streams; aqueducts (bridgelike structures that can carry a water conduit across a valley or over a river) got the canal over bigger streams. A system of locks provided a way to increase the water level from sea level in Georgetown to 610 feet (190m) in Cumberland.

Building and maintaining canals was not easy. However, many of the obstacles of the canal system, ranging from engineering challenges to the fact that canals froze during winter, would probably have been overcome if competition had not been nipping at its heels.

The Coming of the Railroads

Railroads first appeared in the United States in the 1820s, and Baltimore was one of the cities where businessmen thought rail transportation could be key. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company planned to build a line that could create a faster route for Midwestern goods to reach the east coast, and they hoped to take business away from the Erie Canal. Baltimore citizens were so excited that many bought a share of stock so they, too, could profit.

For either rail or canal travel going west through the Mid-Atlantic region, the Catoctin Creek, a major tributary of the Potomac that runs through parts of Maryland and Virginia, is in a key area. The B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal fought over a narrow strip of land where both wanted to cross the Creek. A court decision ordered that the companies compromise. The railroad was to cross the creek using a viaduct; the canal was to build what became the Catoctin Aqueduct, which quickly became recognized as the most beautiful aqueduct on the canal.

Unfortunately for the canal system, by 1850 when the C&O Canal finally completed the stretch that reached Cumberland, the B&O Railroad had already been puffing in and out of Cumberland for eight years. Ten years later, the U.S. had 30,000 miles of track, and it was clear the country was going to rely on rail power.

The C&O Canal continued to operate, primarily bringing coal out of the Allegheny Mountains, but by 1924 the canal was no longer being used. In 1938 the United States acquired the property, declaring it the C&O Canal National Historical Park. World War II halted conversion of the area but by 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared it a national monument, which revived interest.

In 1973 a series of floods brought down two of the three arches of the Catoctin Aqueduct. Five years later an unattractive but functional steel bridge was built so that hikers and bikers could cross the creek. Few must have focused on the magnificent pieces of granite that lay in the stream where the aqueduct collapsed.

When George Lewis, D.V.M. and formerly in the employ at nearby Fort Detrick, moved to a house nearby, he knew he was seeing a treasure hidden in plain sight. He began to explore the idea of rebuilding the aqueduct, and now Lewis serves as the president of what has become the Catoctin Aqueduct Restoration fund.

After a great deal of local campaigning, Lewis' organization gained some additional money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. As of last winter, they had enough money to take bids to get the project underway.

This spring, only a few weeks before the restoration project broke ground, I had the opportunity to walk the tow path with George Lewis and John Jones, from Journey through Hallowed Ground, and the preparation was impressive. Workers had already fished out of the water the many pieces of granite that had collapsed into the creek, and the pieces were identified and laid out like a giant jigsaw puzzle just waiting to be assembled.

While the west has the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, the senior U.S. Senator from Maryland, Barbara Mikulski, summed up the importance of the C&O Park at the groundbreaking in April of 2010: "They can talk about other national parks, but the parks in Maryland represent how America was won and built."

Buy a stone to help support this project, and come visit in 2011. The restoration is to be completed by then.

In a few weeks I'll re-visit this story and tell you about a young woman's life along the river, living in one of the lock houses.