Washington and the Directors of the Company pay for supplies to build a bypass at Great Falls.
The picturesque Potomac River was a current that ran through Washington’s life. As a young man, under the supervision of Lord Fairfax of Virginia, he surveyed the Lord’s landholdings traveling west along the Potomac and then up into the Ohio Valley. He was impressed with what he saw and never forgot it....
The picturesque Potomac River was a current that ran through Washington’s life. As a young man, under the supervision of Lord Fairfax of Virginia, he surveyed the Lord’s landholdings traveling west along the Potomac and then up into the Ohio Valley. He was impressed with what he saw and never forgot it.
His estate of Mount Vernon lay on the Potomac and he devoted much time between the end of the Revolution and his assumption of the presidency to a plan to use that river to improve travel to the interior of the country, and specifically to use it as an artery to open the Ohio Valley and enable its vast raw materials to be shipped to eastern cities and seaports. This would benefit the Potomac region, but it would also increase trade and prosperity and thereby bind the states together in a framework of commerce and mutual interest.
Early in 1772 Washington secured a charter from Virginia for the project of opening the Potomac for navigation The biggest challenge in constructing a navigable channel linking it with the western lands was Great Falls, where the river dropped 75 feet in a half mile stretch that was riddled with rocks and a gorge. A bypass would have to be created to make this portion viable. In fact, the eventual plan included building five skirting canals around the Potomac’s rapids and falls. The mainstream of the Potomac would be utilized wherever navigation was possible. But even here there was a hitch, as Maryland also had jurisdiction over the Potomac and initially failed to endorse the project. The war interrupted all these fine plans.
After the war, both the Virginia and Maryland governors backed Washington’s concept, which would merge with his post-war dream of bringing the national capital to the Potomac River. In 1785, he organized the Pawtomac Company and was elected its first president in May. Two of his wartime aides, John Fitzgerald and George Gilpin, were named co-directors (Gilpin would be a pall bearer at his funeral). The objective of the company was to develop a series of river improvements designed to extend the effective navigation of the Potomac to the highest possible point. The work would prove to be both difficult and dangerous. To overcome elevation changes locks were built in two of the skirting canals, at Little Falls, Maryland and Great Falls, Virginia. The lock system installed at Great Falls was recognized as an engineering marvel.
The National Capitol
As early as 1783, Maryland suggested to Congress that there should be a National Capital at the lower falls of the Potomac. This is the first mention of the present location of the National Capital. On May 29, 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, a plan was submitted again mentioning locating the Federal district on the Potomac. Great stress was laid on the importance of a site that would place the seat of government on a navigable stream far enough from the sea to be safe from hostile attacks. But it was also deemed very important to select a place that would offer means of communication with the western country, which was a subject, as we have seen, in which Washington had been interested for years. This argument was consistent with the purposes for which the Potomac Company had been established.
It was in this context that, in April 1787, work began at Great Falls, with the employment of large numbers of men and the attendant necessity for acquisition of supplies and materials to build the locks of the canal. Washington remained involved and supervised construction when he could, but pressing public business soon called him away to Philadelphia.
Manuscript Document, Alexandria, Virginia, June 2, 1787, signed by a Gerard Green, acknowledging delivery of supplies for construction. “Received of William Hartshorne [who was a planter, miller, and grain and flour commission merchant, as well as an intimate friend of Washington] two iron fifty-six weights, one quire paper, ten quarter casks powder, two bundles soal leather, one bundle upper leather, and one keg nails, to be delivered to James Smith at the Great Falls of the Potowmac – for which I have received one dollar & a quarter for the Carriage thereof.” On the verso, the payment to Hartshorne was approved with a notation, “Passed, October 18, 1787,” and signed by the three directors, Fitzgerald, Gilpin, and Washington.
Quite likely the four-month delay in approving the expense is explained by the fact that from May to September 1787, Washington was away in Philadelphia presiding over the Constitutional Convention. He was back in Virginia in October, working for ratification of the Constitution, when this receipt was signed. We do not recall seeing another autograph of Washington on the market that was signed so close to the Convention’s adoption of the Constitution on September 17, an event in which he played so notable a part.
The subject of the location of the nation’s capital was up for debate when the House and Senate met in September 1789, but final consideration was deferred. In December 1789, Virginia made a grant of $120,000 and a sum equal to 2/3 of that amount was voted by the Legislature of Maryland for the construction of buildings (in addition to their willingness to cede the land along the Potomac River proposed for the Federal district). In July 1790, an Act was passed “for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States” along the Potomac – the site that became the city of Washington, D.C.
Washington died in 1799 and did not see the completion of the Potomac Company improvements in 1802. In 1811, the company’s peak year, 1,300 boats shipped 16,350 tons of goods with a total estimated value of $925,074.80 (a very large sum for the time).
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