Great Falls Historical Society, VA website

Great Falls Park's Locks Recall
Washington's Potomac Canal Project

by Dr. Donald J. Senese

isitorsto the Great Falls Park, a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, enjoy natural beauty and the remaining locks of the Patowmack (Potomac) Canal. These are the remnants of President George Washington's grand scheme for a commercial water highway linking the East with the newly developing West, further binding the country together.

George Washington's canal project failed to accomplish his objectives. The effort had meaning to the new nation but its failure would have implications for trade and for U.S. history, notably the Civil War.

Great seal of the Patowmack Company, organized in 1785 and operating until 1828 when it was acquired by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. Illustration from "Fairfax County, Virginia-A History" by Nan Netherton and others. 1978. By Donald J. Senese

The five locks are still there as well as the entry lock. The canal, completed in 1802, operated for twenty-six years. The canal's locks were used to lift and lower boats carrying a wide variety of goods including pork, tobacco, flour, wheat, rye, corn, and even cast iron stoves.

Initially, everything seemed to go well for the project. The organizational meeting took place in 1785. Surveys were undertaken, personnel hired, and the legislative charter secured.

The charter provided that it should be finished within five years and success achieved when boats loaded with fifty barrels of flour, drawing one foot of water, could pass in the dry seasons.

The company failed on both counts. After a number of extensions, completion of the canal finally came in 1802. In addition, the river became navigable for even the shallowest of boats just during the seasonable high water period, just ten days in the fall and thirty-five each spring. Mud and rocks had to be cleared regularly. Other vexing problems included lack of technical and productive labor and unreliable supervisory personnel.

Washington had assumed the presidency of the Patowmack Company and supervised the building from 1785 until he became the president of the United States in 1788. The canal did not reach completion until after his death in 1799. His dream of a canal becoming a major link with the Ohio Valley died in the early part of the nineteenth century after three decades of operation, bringing in tolls annually ranging from $2,000 to $22,500. The last boat went through the locks in 1830.

General Henry Lee, a strong supporter of the project, purchased 40 acres of land there, named Matildaville after his deceased wife. Matildaville, chartered in 1790, served as the headquarters of the Patowmack Company and included a sawmill, gristmill, housing for laborers, boarding houses, a warehouse, and shops. The failure of the company led to the abandonment of the town.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Company purchased the canal in 1828, abandoned it two years later, and turned its attention to building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, stretching from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland.

These restored locks remain as an important testimony in the early history of our country.

First, meetings with representatives from Virginia and Maryland to discuss navigation and control of the Potomac led to the meeting in Philadelphia, which wrote the U.S. Constitution.

Second, the idea of transportation stayed alive, with the failed canal promoting the industry of lock engineering and leading to other canals and transportation links which promoted self-sufficiency and economic prosperity.

Third, the remains of Matildaville, an early planned community located just five miles from another and more successful planned community of Reston, demonstrates the link between town and an economy.

Liz Crowell, Manager of Cultural Resources for the Fairfax County Park Authority, spent three months working on the site as a student at William and Mary University. She notes, "The site provides a great opportunity to show how the people at that time lived and helps us study the material culture of the time."

Foundations of some Matildaville buildings remain, just a ten-minute walk from the visitor's center, in what became Virginia's first "ghost town."

Washington's idea of linking the East and West fell short, as the nation split not between east and west, but north and south, with the Potomac as a boundary during the Civil War.

The Patowmack Canal is a National Historic Landmark, a Civil Engineering Landmark and a Virginia Historic Landmark. The eight hundred-acre park is under the direction of the National Park Service. For more information visit\grfa or call 703-285-2966.

These locks at Great Falls represent an important part of the early history of transportation and economic development in our country, an early failure that had many unforeseen and beneficial consequences

Dr. Donald J. Senese, a historian and writer, was a resident of Fairfax County and a member of the Fairfax County History Commission.

This very informative article was courtesy of that very interesting publication,

"The North County Chronicle,"
      28 July 2004
Web site,


Great Falls Historical Society, VA website