It cost almost $20 million, took more than two decades to complete, and was already obsolete by the time it was finished: John Quincy Adams’ “Great National Project,” the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
In the early nineteenth century, the best way to move goods was through waterways. President Adams envisioned connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the massive Ohio River–a direct line of transport cutting through Maryland that would link up two of the country’s busiest waterways.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal broke ground in 1828. The plan was to build a canal from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, PA, an enormously optimistic 460-mile endeavor that would support America’s burgeoning prosperity.
Unfortunately, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a nearby competing venture, broke ground the same day. The next 22 years would see the two forms of transport going head to head, with the lowly canal losing at every turn. By the time the canal was completed–terminating in Cumberland, MD, 100 miles short of its targeted destination–the railroad was the undeniable king of America.
Despite the canal’s rapidly fading relevance, Marylanders continued to transport goods through its locks and up its narrow waterway. Countless men and women made their living on the canal, entire families enduring back-breaking labor in the ultimately hopeless pursuit of wealth.
The Monocacy Aqueduct is one remaining artifact from this time period. Built in 1833 at the junction of the Potomac and Monocacy Rivers, Monocacy was the largest of the C&O aqueducts.
Monocacy is often considered the finest canal structure in the United States. Crafted in stone from nearby Sugarloaf Mountain and strongly reminiscent of the bridges in DC, the aqueduct is weirdly polished and fresh looking compared to the riverbanks it spans.
Its massive granite arches leapfrog over the river and cast shimmering half-moon shadows on the water below.
One hundred years ago, a cacophony of canal boats churned along this aqueduct, heavy cargos of lumber, grain, and luxury goods pressing the crafts deep into the water as braying mules struggled to pull the overloaded boats upstream. Today, the aqueduct is a peaceful jogging trail, with the whispers of lapping water and falling leaves the only noticeable sounds.
The aqueduct park has interpretive signs explaining the canal’s history (along with bathrooms and picnic facilities), but they don’t quite capture the futility of the project. Families lived and died on the waterway, a waterway that was already unnecessary before it was completed.
The aqueduct fell into disrepair in the 1920s after a series of devastating floods decimated what life remained on the canal. What remains is beautiful but hollow, the quietly surging water beneath it evoking the relentless forward motion of technology that ultimately rendered the canal obsolete.
Visiting America’s finest canal structure is ultimately a sobering experience. It’s a much-needed reminder that nothing–not even waterways, so critical to humanity’s conquering of the world–stays relevant forever.
If You Go
The Monocacy Aqueduct is an easy hour-and-change drive from either Baltimore or DC. That said, the aqueduct does not have a physical street address to type into GPS, and while there are a few directional signs along the way, they are small and easily overlooked.
Take either I-70 or I-270 to Frederick, then head south/west on MD Route 85. A few miles after passing through Buckeysville, Rte. 85 splits; bear left onto MD Route 28. The aqueduct turnoff is on the right a few miles later.
The Monocacy Aqueduct is just one of several C&O Canal heritage sites. Countless locks, ferries, and visitors centers can be found along the Potomac stretching north from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to the termination point in Cumberland, MD. Other famous points of interest such as Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Great Falls are just a few miles inland from the canal. If you can’t make it to the aqueduct, consider visiting one of these other great options!