Can you imagine living in a time when the proposal to dig the C&O Canal over 360 miles, at least 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with only hand tools sounded like a feasible task? When the C&O Canal company broke ground for this massive undertaking in 1828 that was just what they intended to do.
In the early 1800’s the C&O Canal Company was scheming how it could connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. But, the modern technologies we take for granted were not even on the horizon. Shovels, axes, picks, handsaws, plows and scoops attached to work animals were the tools available to the 35,000 laborers who dug this canal.
After starting construction in Georgetown, the canal builders came to a very welcome sight: An ancient river channel that stood high above the Potomac’s current location in the Gorge. Instead of digging this portion of the canal, the workers were spared! For about a mile, the canal would follow the path of this old channel and once again allow the waters of the Potomac River to run through it.
Canal engineers instructed the workers to build log cribbing and refill the old river channel to make it part of the C&O Canal. Many boatmen knew this section as “Log Wall”. One in particular remembered “the lower lock of Six Locks was what we called Log Wall. It’s about a mile long. You come out of the lock, and on this side there’s a lot of rocks, and on this side there’s a lot of rocks - riprap - and the canal is going right between these rocks. Right at the foot of Log Wall the towpath is not very wide, and it’s windy - it’s win-dy up there - Boy, I hated to be out there, especially at night.”
Even though the C&O Canal Company was able to utilize ancient river channels and slackwater sections of the river upstream, many more miles of canal were left to build. Constructing over 360 miles of canal through the Appalachian mountains proved too daunting a task. In 1850 the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was completed to Cumberland, Maryland - 184.5 miles in total - and the remaining section that was intended to carry boats to the Ohio River was never dug.
Thinking back to those days when coal and other goods were still brought down the C&O Canal, it might have been scary to be a boatman on the water or a mule driver on the towpath in “Log Wall” - try walking this section on a breezy day and you can still experience how win-dy it is. But I think most visitors agree that this area, which we now refer to as Widewater rather than Log Wall, is one of the most scenic and unique places in the entire park.