The Potomac Company

Washington’s Mount Vernon estate was nicely situated on the Potomac River for easy access to the sea and, hence, world markets. By the late 18th century, such convenient locations, and many acres less favorably situated, were already under the plow. As America’s population continued to swell, the fertile interior west of the Appalachian Mountains would have to be farmed if the nation were to remain an agrarian republic. To entice settlement on those lands, a cheap, easy and secure method for connecting them to world markets would have to be found. And to ensure that the frontier people remained loyal to the United States, those transportation routes would have to run over or through the mountains. Realizing all that, Washington purchased thousands of acres inland and then sought to link them economically and politically to the Chesapeake via the watery highway that ran through his front lawn.

The Potomack Company (spelled in myriad ways) was one of several early largely private attempts to connect western farms and forests to eastern marts. A joint-stock company chartered by both Virginia and Maryland in 1784, it charged shippers tolls to use the five canals it built around the otherwise impassable spots on the Potomac River, saving shippers untold time and trouble porting their cargo and boats around waterfalls and other rough spots.

Washington invested in the endeavor and served until 1788 as its first president. Due to a dearth of technical skill, labor and cash, as well as a surfeit of lawsuits, progress was slow. The Company’s biggest accomplishment, circumventing the “Great Falls,” was not completed until early 1802, a little over two years after Washington’s death. Even then, however, the company did not do well financially because the water level was erratic and low. The Company relinquished its charter rights to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company in 1828 and ceased operations.