“...the inland Navigation of this Commonwealth where it may be useful & practicable . . . will not only be of amazing convenience & advantage to its Citizens, but sources of immense wealth to the Country. . .” —excerpt from Washington letter
The Potomack Company
During his brief postwar retirement, George Washington became an enthusiastic lobbyist and president of the Potomack Company. A cooperative venture between Maryland and Virginia, the company planned to build a series of roads and canals linking the Potomac River to the Ohio territories. In the letter to Stuart, Washington writes of the company’s intention to petition the two states’ legislatures for an exemption to build a shallow canal.
As early as 1754, Washington had been intrigued at the idea of using the Potomac River to extend inland navigation and trade. In the 1780s, he believed the canal project was a vital step toward consolidating the country. Maryland and Virginia’s collaboration on the canal project directly led to a series of meetings concerning interstate commerce that culminated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Detail from A New Map of North America with the West India Islands...London: Laurie & Whittle, 1794.
The Great Falls of the Potomac by George Beck, 1797 oil painting belonging to George Washington. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
Above left:To make the Potomac River navigable required a network of bypass canals and roads around major river falls and rapids. The Potomack Company had limited success during Washington’s lifetime. Construction of the Potomack Canal around Great Falls, the largest obstruction on the river, began in 1785 under Washington’s leadership and was completed in 1802, two years after his death. A portion of the canal can still be seen at Great Falls Park in McLean, Virginia.