World Regional Geography

This document was last updated on 02 May 2000. (Ver. 1.3)

Technology, the Patowmack Canal, and National Unity A Grade 8 Lesson.

A word regarding spelling. In the 18th and early 19th century, there were no standard rules of spelling. 'Patowmack' was the common spelling for what we now refer to as the Potomac River system. Both spellings are used throughout this lesson, more or less correctly for their context.

This lesson is based on 'The Patowmack Canal : Waterway that Led to the Constitution" by Wilbur Garrett, Photographs by Kenneth Garrett. National Geographic, June 1987, pg. 716 - 773.

We begin the lesson by reading the article. The teacher may use guided practice to help students understand the relationship between the technology of canal building and river navigation, and how these events influenced the political movement toward national unity.

1. Describe the role played by George Washington in promoting Potomac River navigation.

2. Identify factors that influence the appropriate use of technology.

3. Determine the technology needed to achieve successful navigation of the Potomac River.

4. Explain the relationship between canal building and the development of national unity.

5. Identify geographic characteristics from a physical map.

6. Evaluate the alternative forms of technology proposed for navigating the Potomac River in the 1780's and 1790's.

Significant Events, Terms and Individuals
Students should be prepared to define these terms : George Washington, locks, fall line, Mount Vernon Compact, James Rumsey, two paths, John Fitch, Benjamin Franklin, jet propulsion, and pole boat.

Connection to American History
This lesson is designed for use with the study of the movement toward a stronger national government and the study of developments that led toward greater national unity during the early period of American history.

Opening: Read the following quote by George Washington. In March, 1784 shortly after resigning his commission as Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson

"Respecting the practicability of an essay, and short communication between the waters of the Ohio
and the Patowmack ... I am satisfied that not a moment ought to be lost in commencing this business."

Questions for Discussion
What business was George Washington referring to? Why do you think that he thought that the Patomack Canal should be built at once? Note: Washington believed that the western territories might break away from the nation if some means of binding them to the eastern states wasn't developed. New York was attempting to negotiate with Great Britain to build a canal along the Mohawk/Hudson River route. The Potomac river was the shortest route between the tidewater in the the East and the headwaters beyond the mountains near Pittsburgh. The Canal also had the advantage of being centrally located.

Connection to the Lesson
Washington's interest in building the Patowmack Canal began before the American Revolution. Students should be asked to consider some possible motives for Washington's early interest in navigating the Potomac. His own plantation and other lands on the lower Potomac, land holding on the upper Potomac and after the revolution he purchased lands in the Ohio River valley. Washington had traveled to the west several times and had observed first hand the possibilities of investigating in the Potomac River.

Developing the Lesson
1. Have students read the handout describing Washington's role in the Patowmack Canal Company. Discuss the essential points in Student Handout One. Have the students draw a time line in their notebook while the teacher constructs one on the chalk board.
2. Trace the steps that tied the building of the Patowmack Canal toward forming a national government, beginning with the Mount Vernon Conference.
3. Have students look at the map of the United States for about 1783. Ask students to answer the following questions
  • Where did people live?
  • How far inland could rivers be navigated?
  • What was the fall line? Locate the fall line on the Potomac River. Where did Washington live?

    What physical factors needed to be overcome before the Potomac River could be navigated? (Little Falls: A 38-foot drop over two miles; Great Falls: (9 miles further upriver) a 77-foot drop in just over a mile; Seneca Falls, (8 miles futher upriver) a seven-foot drop in a mile; Shenandoah, (just below Harper's Ferry) 3-foot drop in mile. See National Geographic, June, 1987, p. 524 for an excellent pictorial map of the Potomac River.)

    4. Ask students what they think would be needed to overcome these obstacles. You might begin by asking students what is needed to undertake such large projects. For example, what was needed before the United States was able to put a human on the moon? Brainstorm some of the factors which had to be considered. Organize the chart and place it on the chalkboard or overhead. Have students fill it in. Which of the tasks listed below was probably the most difficult to overcome?

    5. How were each of the factors below overcome in the 1780's and 1790's?
    A. Technological. Hire competent engineers who could achieve one of the following: Washington's plan was to dig a channel in the river and then pull or push boats upriver. Others believed canals should be dug around the several falls, which often involved blasting a ditch through solid rock, and using locks where necessary to raise and lower boats.
    Discuss Student Handout Two : Powering Boats Upstream. Begin by asking:

    Why was there so much competition rather than cooperation between Rumsey and Fitch?
    How did the inventors power their boats?
    How was the development of the steamboat related to navigation of the Potomac?
    How where the state governments involved in the steamboat controversy?
    How was navigation on the Potomac achieved?

    B. Political: Encourage cooperation among the states, especially Maryland and Virginia.
    Washington lobbied the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia to obtain a charter for the Potowmack Canal Company which would build and operate the navigational system on the Potomac. Washington became President of the company.
    Maryland and Virginia signed the Mount Vernon Compact to cooperate in navigation along the Potomac River. [Note: By establishing the nation's capitol on the Potomac just below the fall line, Congress gave improving navigation on the Potomac another push since providing access to the nation's capital from the states in the west was crucial.]

    C. Need for Resources. The company's charter allowed the company to raise capital by subscription, i.e. selling stock. [Note: When Maryland and Virgina chartered the Potowmack Canal Company, they subscribed to fifty shares each or one fifth of the total stock. Private investors subscribed to most of the rest of the stock, although many never paid the money due. As enthusiasm for the enterprise lessened, it became more and more difficult to raise the needed funds to complete the project. The company's directors continually appealed to the state legislature with some success, for additional funding. As part of the canal system was opened, tolls provided revenues, but these were used for maintenance, not dividends on their investment.]

    The company hired James Z. Rumsey as Manager of the company. He lacked the needed engineering skills and management experience. He was dismissed after one year. Management was a constant problem for the company.

    Labor presented difficulties. At first the company hired free whites, providing food wages and 'good and substantial provisions... and a responsible quantity of spirits' and offered large wages to thoses who proved most expert in boring and blowing up rocks. But this labor force proved turbulent and insubordinate. Consequently, the company turned to the use of indentured servents and slaves whom they hired from planters. Conflict broke out between the various classes of workers. Neighbors complainted about the workers' conduct. Many of the indentured servants ran away. Few workers had the needed skills for canal and lock building experience.

    The navigation of this river is equal, if not superior to any in the Union...
    this will become the great avenue into the Western Country." Geo. Washington (Barrett, pg. 724a)

    D. Leadership was provided by the company's directors. The board met often to solve the various financial, labor and management problems that arose. George Washington, however, soon found his attention being turned more towards adopting a new form of goverment. Washington renewed his active interest in the company upon retiring from the Presidency.

    6. Progress in the building of the canal and clearing the river for navigation was slow but by 1788 a difficult pass opened between the Great Falls and the Senca River. A towpath and a canal were nearly completed so by 1790 boats were navigating the canal. By December of 1801, the lock and the canal system had been opened for some 218 miles.

    Upon completion of the reading of the handouts and classroom discussion, students will be divided up into five committees to develop a group product based on what they learned from this lesson. The groups will produce these, which will be used to assess their comprehension of the lesson:

  • An informational brochure, showing major routes of the Potawmack Canal, natural features and major cultural sites.
  • A five minute informational video tape, illustrating what they have learned. This should follow accepted travel documentary formats. A copy of the script must be submitted with the video.
  • Three 3 x 4 posters illustrating the Potawmack Canal, its major physical and human characteristics.
  • A five minute illustrated talk, using slides, videotape, computer presentation software or other media approved by the instructor.
  • A 5 - 10 page paper describing the major geographic and historical characteristics of the Potowmack Canal.

    Teachers are encouraged to incorporate the Five Geographic Themes and the National Geography Standards into the lesson.

    While geographic content is evident throughout the reading, let us not forget that this lesson builds on Michael Whelen's thoughts regarding history as a core social studies discipline, exposing students to innovative interdisciplinary methods of investigation and analysis. (Whelen, pg. 33)

    Maps and other Illustrations will appear here.

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