Not a bad grade…  This is the grade on my first assignment in the Grad class at UVA. So now I’ll bore you with my paper – although it was much fun doing the research and I enjoyed looking in to the subject…  There could be something to this research thing – well, actually its the part of my job I like the best.  I wish I’d had this enthusiasm 20+ years ago when I was in college – oh well, live and learn.  Well, here’s the paper:

Project of the Antiquities – The Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal and Paw Paw Tunnel


The Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal stretches 184.5 miles along the Potomac River between Washington DC and Cumberland, Maryland.  In the late 18th century and early 19th century, this nation created a network of canals and waterways for use in transporting commercial goods.  River travel was both inexpensive and reasonably reliable.  The construction of the canal would allow movement of commercial goods from the south up in to the west.  Connection with the Ohio River would then allow passage of goods into upper Midwest.  This was seen as a way to grow commerce in the south.


Two set of falls along the Potomac River at Great Falls and Little Falls, along with the overall descent of the river, from approximately 600 feet above sea level in Cumberland, required an alternative method of transportation along the river.  Two options included either the construction of a canal with a series of locks or the building of a railroad line.   The river route was chosen and the canal was built by the Potomac Company from June 1828 to October 1850. 


The board of the Potomac Company monitored the project and progress; however the direction and daily operations of the project were managed by the engineers on the project.  Throughout the project many engineers and contractors were involved; each concentrating on their areas of expertise.


As construction began on the northern part of the canal, in an area along the Maryland/West Virginia border, a stretch of the river ran through a heavily forested mountainous region known as the Paw-Paw Bends.  This six-mile stretch of the Potomac River winds back and forth in big loops.  Digging in this area was thought to be too difficult by the engineers.  A one-mile long tunnel through the mountain was seen to be the easier route.  At the time, the route trough the mountain was also thought to be more cost effective.  Through the mountain would consist of excavating only one mile versus excavating six miles along the river while removing trees and debris and possibly building more locks to accommodate elevation loss.


The Resident Engineer recommended the tunnel project in December 1835.  The 3,000 foot tunnel would bypass the six-mile section of river thus saving resources for the remainder of the project.  The engineering plans for the tunnel indicated that a rate of eight feet per day working from both ends could be achieved.  The contractors on the project thought those estimate were very optimistic, which turned out to be a correct assessment. 


The board was convinced by the engineers that the tunnel project was the cheaper and more time effective method of traversing the terrain and the project began in 1836.


Labor shortages plagued the canal project from the beginning.  The first annual report to the directors in 1829 sited that although the project currently employed upwards of 2,000 men, completion of the project depended on increasing the number of workers to at least 6,000.  The board sought to fill these roles with the migration of workers from Europe: especially England, Germany, and the Netherlands.  Workers were promised meat three times a day, plenty of vegetable and bread, a reasonable allowance of liquor and wages varying from $8 to $12 per month.


The efforts to bring workers from abroad, while ensuring costs remained as low as possible, led way to a return to the practice of indentured service.  Workers would work for three months to repay the cost of their passage to America and further promised to work on the project for at least one year at the contracted rate.


The nature of the project also required that the workers hired possess certain skills; those with digging/excavating skills and masons and stone cutters were a primary focus.  This project required extensive manual labor in both removing the rocks and earth, and securing the opening with bricks. 


The onsite engineers and contractors kept the project on schedule as best they could.  Contractors were faced with challenges of transporting and maintaining equipment to the site.  They also had to house and feed the workers.  This proved to be challenging on many levels.  The workers and management were faced with language challenges with and among the workers, they were exposed to illness that they had never encountered and the reasonable alcohol allowances and other cultural differences led to fights and riots.


The management onsite kept the project moving forward and while the reports to the board may not have always been detailed as to all of the issues being faced, the board was able to enact some swift changes when necessary.  


The C&O Canal and the Paw Paw Tunnel were engineering marvels of their time.  Without the benefit of modern technology in surveying and analysis (and hindsight being 20/20), predicting the challenges they faced on the project would have been very difficult.


Realistic estimates of the effort involved in digging one mile through a mountain would have at least set proper expectations.  The estimates provided were probably very optimistic to ensure board approval of the project.   Ultimately the digging rate for the Paw Paw Tunnel was closer to eight feet per week. 


There were no efforts to integrate the workers from the other countries.  They arrived in America, not speaking the language, understanding the conditions in which they would be living and working.  This lead to conflicts that were not anticipated by the Company and led to all out wars in some instances.  In my company, much is done to attempt to inform staff of the other cultures from which co-worked hail.  


The first estimate for the cost of the canal was $1,114,300; the final cost of the project was $11, 071, 176.  The cost of the tunnel was $616, 478 and it took over 12 years to complete.  The C&O Canal became obsolete before it was even finished because the B&O railroad completed its line between Baltimore and Cumberland.   While train travel is more expensive, the efficiency as a mode of transporting great quantities of goods and people and eventual extension into and across the frontier were the death knell for extensive water highway use in America.


2 thoughts on “28/30

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