In 1841 funds were exhausted for construction on the unfinished 50 miles of the C&O Canal from Dam 6 to Cumberland. For a dozen years the canal had been one of the biggest projects in the region, pumping money into the county through payments to contractors and their purchase of local labor and supplies. With the cessation of work along its line above Dam 6, both the demand for laborers and sales of canal construction materials dried up.
However things looked up in 1845 when the Maryland Legislature passed a bill authorizing the canal company to issue $1,700,000 in preferred construction bonds on the mortgage of future revenues. A contract was promptly issued to Gwyn and Company, which then subcontracted the work. Unfortunately, conditions such as those created by the Mexican War made the sale of the bonds difficult and by July of 1846, work had once more ceased. Finally in November 1847, following a year of ultimately successful negotiations to sell the bonds, work resumed under a revised contract with the firm of Hunter, Harris & Company, which also immediately subcontracted the remaining jobs. (Unrau, 221–222)
It was in this period that there began to emerge a strong nativist movement objecting to minorities with foreign connections. It is likely that this was at least partially in reaction to the influx of Irish driven from their homeland by the great potato famine. The movement was important to both the canal specifically and Washington County in general:
As the earliest election successes of the nativist movement in Maryland occurred in the Potomac Valley towns of Hagerstown and Cumberland in 1854, it can be conjectured that the importation of foreigners by the canal company to build its works served as one of the earliest and most important episodes in the long chain of events that led to the formation of a political nativist movement in the state. (p. 142)
Construction on the final 50 miles to Cumberland continues to be uneven in the 1848–1850 period, and the canal was not finished until the late summer of 1850 when Frederick contractor Michael Byrne took over the projects that were still incomplete following yet another contractor failure. The canal company would at last open the final 50 miles on October 10, 1850.
Meanwhile, during those years of troubled construction on the upper end of the canal, 134 miles of canal were operating from Dam 6 to Georgetown, with 76 of those miles in Washington County. Improvements and new businesses were appearing as the canal began to become an important transportation route to the region. For example, a dry dock was constructed on the berm side of the canal near Williamsport after the canal board approved a contract with Owen Ardinger to construct it in late 1847. And on Dec. 8, 1848, the canal company authorized John G. Stone, superintendent of the Third Division, to use canal employees to build a lockhouse at lock 44 in Williamsport.
Unfortunately there were three major floods during the 1845–50 period, two in1846—the first in March and the second in July. The major damage in March was along the canal above and below Williamsport from Dam No. 4 to No. 5. However, improvements made in recent years resulted in less damage than that done by a similar flood in September of 1843.
In October 1847, another enormous storm did devastating damages to canals and railroads over a broad swath of the mid-Atlantic States. Reporting from near Clear Spring on October 8, canal superintendent William S. Elgin predicted that the rising waters would set a record and later stated that the Potomac along the canal in that area had risen higher than he had ever previously seen it. Ultimately the areas from Point of Rocks to Dam 4 and around Dam 5 were among the most significantly impacted by this flood. Unable to effect repairs before winter, the C&O Canal was closed from early October until the beginning of the next boating season in March 1848, with the exception of the section from Dam No. 3 to Georgetown that reopened briefly in mid-December. (Unrau, 289)
Although these floods prevented the years of 1846 and 1847 from showing the improvement in commerce on the canal that had been expected, there was growth overall between 1845 and 1850, and particularly in 1849. However, from December 1843 to March 1845, the B&O Railroad had, by agreement with the canal company, shipped coal to Dam 6 where it was boated across the river and then shipped down the canal. (Unrau, 455) The collapse of this agreement meant that the amount of coal carried on the canal was minimal until the final 50 miles were completed at the end of the decade.
By 1848, the canal was carrying in addition to other agricultural products such as corn and wheat, more than 200,000 tons of flour a year—a tonnage the B&O Railroad would not carry until 1852. (Unrau, 653) A clear indication of the increase in boat traffic on the canal in this second half of the 1840s, was the canal company’s orders to locktenders in February 1848 to be responsible for their locks 24-hours a day. No longer could a locktender refuse to operate his lock at night.
During this period Caspar Wever attempted to bring into reality his dream of a great industrial village on the eastern edge of Washington County between the canal and the river. In May 1847 he advertised the first sale of lots, and twenty six were sold. In November he arrived at an agreement with the canal company to build a dam across the Potomac as compensation for his allowing a canal waste water channel across his land and for his building protective walls along the canal where the dam raised the river level. (Maynard, 100–104)
The dam was completed in 1849, the same year that the Weverton Steel and File Company was incorporated with plans to make steel and cast iron cutting tools. On July 13, the Frederick Citizen reported that J. Barker and Company was erecting a large iron furnace at Weverton and 18 or 20 dwelling houses were being erected, preparing for the time when they would be needed by those operating and working in the anticipated factories. (Maynard, 100–104)
In the 1840s interest grew in the use of steam on the canal, and in December 1849 Lemuel Williams was permitted to use steam boats to pull barges on the canal and by May 1850 N. S. Denny & Co. was operating a fleet of steam tugs although a problem had developed in that some of the bridges on the canal were too low for them to pass under. (Unrau, 345)
All-in-all the second half of the 1840s was a time of slow growth for the canal and businesses associated with it, despite three floods and continual difficulties in completing the canal to Cumberland. Ominously however, expenditures exceeded receipts during the years of 1845 through 1850 by $94,174.39. (Sanderlin, 309)
Maynard, Peter. Wever of the B&O Railroad and Weverton. Brunswick, MD: The Brunswick Historical Press (1996)
Sanderlin, Walter S. The Great National Project. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press (2005 reprint by Eastern National arrangement with the Press)
Unrau, Harlan D. Historic Resource Study: Chesapeake and Ohio canal. (2007) Available in searchable pdf format at: www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/choh/unrau_hrs.pdf