Coal to the Western Terminus

Canal-Railroad Connections in Cumberland, Md.

Patrick H. Stakem

It was on the Fourth of July in 1828 that both the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal began building westward from the seaboard to the Ohio River. The geography dictated an intermediate goal of Cumberland, Maryland. The B&O reached Cumberland in 1842; the Canal came in 1850. The canal represented proven European technology, and the railroad was a more speculative venture. Although it was not predicted to be the major cargo, coal from the rich fields around Eckhart and the Georges Creek Big Vein quickly became the dominant freight.

An eight year head start was enough to provide quite a monopoly to the railroad. The Canal, stalled at Williamsport, proved a major customer for the B&O, however. Trans-shipment of coal was done for the Washington / Georgetown / Alexandria markets. The B&O hauled the coal from Cumberland to Williamsport, where it was loaded onto canal boats for the remainder of the trip. This practice continued until the Canal reached Cumberland.

The Eckhart Railroad fed coal from the Eckhart and Hoffman mines east of Frostburg, to the B&O railroad at Cumberland. Later, the railroad's Potomac Wharf Branch allowed access to Potomac riverboats and canal boats in the river, before the canal wharf facility was completed. The flat-bottom boats ferried coal down the Potomac to Georgetown and Alexandria during the Spring, when the water level was high enough for navigation. After the C&O Canal reached Cumberland, canal boats could enter the Potomac River via the guard locks. The original Potomac River wharf had been built by Mr. John Galloway Lynn of Cumberland, and was known as the Lynn Wharf. It was deeded to the Maryland Mining Company in 1852 by his heirs.

Westernport and Piedmont, sister cities across the Potomac River, became a logical target for connection of the Georges Creek region with other railroads or the canal. One of the two proposed paths for the canal westward from Cumberland to the Ohio River would have passed through Westernport. Unfortunately, the Canal Company ran out of money, and stopped at Cumberland. Before then, the Georges Creek Coal & Iron Company had connected the iron furnace and mines at Lonaconing via rail line to Westernport, Md. and Piedmont, Va. (now, WV). The B&O reached Piedmont in July 1851. The Georges Creek Coal & Iron company built their line from Piedmont to Lonaconing in 1852. That line was acquired in 1863 by the C&P Railroad.

After 1850, the canal offered lower prices for coal transportation than the railroad, and provided the most direct, although not the quickest path to the Washington, D.C. area. Trains from Cumberland to Baltimore typically took 10 hours, where a canal boat trip from Cumberland to Georgetown was 5 days. Coal flowed into Cumberland from the Georges Creek and Eckhart mines over a series of short line railroads, mostly consolidated into the Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad by 1870. To get to the canal loading wharves, the C&P had to cross B&O tracks. The B&O extracted a toll for this passage.

The original loading wharves allowed bottom dumping of a coal car directly into a canal boat -- a major improvement over the hand-shoveling method. Originally not a major structure, the facility allowed only for one loaded coal car at a time, pulled by horses. Later, Consolidation Coal would build a large concrete structure for canal boat loading. A typical canal boat held 120 tons of bulk cargo. Railroad cars of the time would hold 10 tons, so a dozen cars would be loaded into one boat. Modern coal cars are typically 100 ton's capacity.

Although they are often portrayed as antagonists, the canal and the railroads cooperated in moving the black gold of the Cumberland region to the insatiable markets of the Eastern seaboard.


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note: this article was published in On the Towpath, Vol. XXVII, no. 3, Sept 1995, pp. 10-11