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A Gateway to the West

George Washington must have had an exceptional imagination. How else to explain his decision to lead an army of green farm boys against an army of trained professionals, and expect to win? At Trenton, after a summer of devastating loses, Washington saw a way to turn the tables with a series of unexpected maneuvers and actually win a battle—and did so. Coupled with a second victory a week later at Princeton, Washington’s ragtag army regained the upper hand. Five years later, at Yorktown, they delivered the coup-de-tat. “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Long before Walt Disney said it, George Washington lived it.

After the war, Washington resigned as Commander-in-Chief and returned to Mount Vernon only to discover he was broke. Yes, he had 200 slaves, but if you treated your slaves somewhat as human beings, with adequate food and medical care, as Washington did, it was a costly and often losing enterprise. Washington began looking beyond the Allegheny Mountains to the nation’s heartland as a way out of his economic predicament. He owned property there which under the current state of things was worth next to nothing. If he could somehow link up the Potomac River with the Ohio River it would open up a vast new empire for economic growth. How? With a canal. Such a canal would make Virginia the nation’s economic center, and make his land holdings—on both sides of the Alleghenies—extremely valuable.

Washington had been dreaming of just such a water highway since boyhood. Before the Revolutionary War, he secured approval from the Virginia legislature for the formation of a stock company to improve navigation on the Potomac and to charge tolls. With Maryland on the river’s north bank, approval from that state was required. However, opposition from Baltimore merchants who saw their city being bypassed in favor of Alexandria, Virginia, scuttled the deal. After the war, the ex-Commander-in-Chief’s prestige was such that opposition from a few nervous Baltimore businessmen was easily overcome, and the Potomac Canal Company was chartered by Maryland and Virginia. While investment capital was scarce after the war, Washington’s name attracted enough money to get the project started.

Washing brushed up on his surveying skills and spent a good part of 1784 exploring the Allegheny Mountain range to determine the shortest and most practical route between the two rivers. The more he explored, the more he realized the enormity of the task. Above the fall line, the Potomac was a narrow, fast-moving mountain stream that would have to be opened up for 200 miles. The terrain rose so sharply that hundreds of locks would have to be built, dug out from mostly bedrock. Still, the more he looked the more he dreamed. He foresaw a centrally planned network of canals and improved rivers that would lead everywhere and bring “navigation to almost every man’s door.” Best of all, it would make Alexandria the gateway to the West. Washington had an idyllic name for his dream water highway—the River of Swans.

The River of Swans called for untold amounts of investment capital and, as more states became involved, interstate commerce regulation from the national government. At Mount Vernon in March 1785, Washington hosted a conference of investors and businessmen from Maryland and Virginia. Talk inevitably turned to the national government’s inability to govern effectively. All real power—the power to tax and spend—resided with the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were sovereign entities, 13 independent nation-states that since the Revolution bickered and bullied one another and did absolutely nothing in the national interest. All the while the massive war debt went unaddressed, money was scarce, and the national economy was slipping into recession. If ever Washington’s canal was going to be a reality, it would require a strong central government to regulate interstate commerce and to have the wherewithal to restore the nation’s credit and thereby free-up investment capital. Before adjourning, Virginia proposed a convention of delegates from all 13 states “to see how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony.”

The result was the Annapolis Convention, held in September 1786. Nothing happened because delegates from only five states actually attended. Before the convention adjourned, Alexander Hamilton proposed a convention in Philadelphia to address the heart of the matter: to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” George Washington did not attend the Annapolis Convention nor did he plan to attend the Philadelphia Convention. He was, as he liked to say, retired from public life. Nonetheless, he was deeply concerned over the state of his country. To a friend he wrote: “I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union.” With the convention a month off, he changed his mind. The General did little more than gavel the opening and closing of the convention each day, but his mere presence gave the body of delegates the legitimacy it needed to draw up a complete new constitution, four printed pages that would make the federal government the supreme governing body of the land. The rest is history. But what of the River of Swans? As the nation’s first president, Washington had more pressing issues to deal with, but he never lost sight of his dream. He threw his support behind the plan to move the nation’s capital from New York City to the banks of the Potomac hoping it would lead to the canal’s construction. Nothing of the sort happened. The building of the new federal city—to be named Washington—siphoned off the engineering talent, workforce, and money that otherwise could have been focused on building the canal. George Washington retired from office and passed away before the capital city was finished.


Not long after, as Thomas Jefferson was settling into his second term as president, the governor of New York paid him a visit. He had a plan for a canal that would link the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. All he needed was financing from the federal government. Jefferson was angered by the proposal, because he knew it would make New York and not Virginia the gateway to the West. He told the governor to forget it. There were far more important matters requiring federal attention, he said. Besides, the technology to build such a canal would not exist for at least another hundred years. Jefferson was partly right. The technology to build a canal linking the Potomac with the Ohio River would not exist until 1900, in the form of pneumatic jackhammers and steam shovels to cut through miles and miles of bedrock. But the technology to link the Hudson with the Great Lakes did exist—in mere picks and shovels. The Erie Canal, as it would be known, did not have a granite mountain range to traverse. It merely had to rise to a height of 600 feet over a distance of 350 miles, over mostly farmland. The governor returned to New York empty handed. Undeterred, he turned to Wall Street to sell state-issued bonds to raise the necessary financing. The Erie Canal was completed under budget and on time. It opened in 1825, and did everything Washington had hoped the River of Swans would do. It opened up the heartland to undreamed of commerce and made the nearest east coast city—New York—the nation’s economic center.

As it turned out, Thomas Jefferson did have a plan for a federally-funded highway. This was the Cumberland Pike. Approved by Congress in 1806, construction didn’t actually begin until 1815. Originally, the highway was designed to serve as a portage linking Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. For long stretches, the gravel-covered road followed an ancient Native American path. The Cumberland Pike became not so much a highway that increased commerce as a way west for pioneers to settle the nation’s heartland. Eventually the project was turned over to the states that collected tolls to finish the job. When it was completed, the Cumberland Pike reached all the way to Illinois.

Not to be outdone, Pennsylvania created a gravel tollroad of its own, called the Pennsylvania Turnpike, connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh. The turnpike had wood bridges over rivers and roadside inns along the way.

Maryland, which once shared Washington’s dream, had not given up on the idea. State boosters dreamed of a new way over the Appalachians—with a steel highway. This was the B&O Railroad (short for the two connecting points—Baltimore and the Ohio River). It began as a spur linking Baltimore with a mill town just upriver—Ellicott City. The railroad bed and massive granite bridges were created before they had a steam locomotive. The first freight and passenger cars were pulled by teams of horses. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s engineers travelled to England to make a study of British trains. They returned to America saying the British system would not work here. As a result, they created their own technology to build the B&O locomotives and railroad cars. Indeed, the boiler of the first steam locomotive was not horizontal but vertical, to accommodate the short chassis deemed necessary to negotiate the multitude of tight curves between Baltimore and the Ohio River. The first link, to Ellicott City, was opened in 1830. Progress was slow. The first railroad line to actually traverse the Allegheny Mountains was not completed until 1852. By then, most eastern cities were being served by other railroad lines, lines that were forever pushing the western frontier further and further to the West. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. But that is another story, and quite another dream.

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