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May 3, 1924: Flood at Harper's Ferry Permanently Shuts Down Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

West Virginia Humanities Council

On May 3, 1924, a devastating flood at Harpers Ferry wiped out a highway bridge and permanently shut down the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

The canal, located entirely on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, was the brainchild of George Washington and others who wanted to connect the Atlantic Ocean and Ohio River by bypassing less-navigable portions of the Potomac. Construction began in Washington, D.C., in 1828 and reached Harpers Ferry, with much fanfare, six years later. One of the biggest engineering challenges was a more than half-mile-long 24-foot-high tunnel, which was cut through Sorrel Ridge north of the Morgan County town of Paw Paw—the largest man-made structure on the canal.

The canal was opened between Washington and Cumberland, Maryland, in 1850, bringing an economic boost to what is now West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. By 1850, though, the canal had already been bypassed—in speed, efficiency, and distance—by the new Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Mules and canal boats continued to transport goods along the canal—with varying levels of commercial success—until the 1924 flood closed it for good.

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