Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The nearly-two-century-old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a 184-mile one time engineering marvel that now charms D.C. and Maryland hikers, is a familiar landmark to most Arlingtonians.

The same cannot be said for the Alexandria Canal, a C&O extension that hugged our side of the Potomac from 1843 to 1886. Picturing it requires a bit of imagination for us moderns, though the City of Alexandria has invested in making its remembrance easier.

In 1830, two years after construction began on the C&O Canal, Congress sought to extend it. The Alexandria Canal would allow boats to traverse the Potomac via the 1,000-foot-long engineering breakthrough called the Aqueduct Bridge, which linked Georgetown to what would become the Rosslyn section of today’s Arlington.

Mule-powered and cargo-laden barges traversing the then-wet bridge would travel by canal seven miles to Alexandria City, where four locks would lower them to loading docks on the river for long-distance transport, saving shippers labor costs.

At the Alexandria Canal groundbreaking on July 3, 1831, a crowd assembled in Old Town Alexandria for a procession, an artillery salute and ceremony at the town hall. The speaker George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington House. The chairman of the newly formed, congressionally chartered Alexandria Canal Company presented a spade to Mayor John Roberts. But with no federal appropriation, the planners had to raise private capital.

The company went to court to fight the citizens of Georgetown over cost sharing and rights to the Potomac. In turn, the Corporation of Georgetown sued the canal company, claiming the Aqueduct Bridge was within the corporate limits of Georgetown. As summarized by the current-day legal website Justia, plaintiffs argued that the Potomac was a public highway and that persons working near the river, as guaranteed under the 1785 navigation compact between Virginia and Maryland, were free to use the river but were being blocked by the new canal’s construction. The canal company rebutted, citing its charter from Congress. A circuit court dismissed the Georgetowners’ case, and in 1838, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

During construction, Custis petitioned Congress in 1836 to be compensated for alleged damages to his riverside fishing grounds by the dredging machine used by the Corporation of Georgetown. In 1839, he negotiated with the Alexandria Canal Company to give it right-of-way through his land. He also offered a foundry as a setting for manufacturing on his land and hired out his Irish laborers for the construction.

The canal was completed in 1843. It roughly followed today’s Metro blue line and South Eads Street in Crystal City. Canal shipping, though interrupted by the Civil War, continued until 1886, by which time, railroads had rendered it obsolete.

In modern times, remnants of the Aqueduct Bridge are visible from both the Virginia and Georgetown sides of the Potomac. Abandoned with the completion of Key Bridge in 1920, its superstructure was taken down in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration. In 1962, the Army Corps of Engineers removed remaining tops of the old bridge’s stone piers.

The best way for moderns to visualize the Alexandria Canal is to visit the Potomac at Old Town’s north end. The office complex known as Canal Center contains a swell life-size reproduction of a tide lock.

County transportation planners’ transitioning of one of our main thoroughfares from Lee Highway to Langston Blvd. remains a work in progress.

While news editors and conversationalists toggle between the old and new names, the county and VDOT, at this writing, have yet to mount the planned 74 new intersection signs and eight overhead panels on I-66.

But at least one private citizen beat them to the punch. Paul Garst, whose front-yard stone facing the boulevard displays a custom metal plaque listing his address, has already ordered and installed a new version reading “Langston Blvd.”