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The canal project was originally proposed by George Washington to link the tidewater communities with the interior. The Patowmack Company was formed in 1784 to construct five canals along the river to make it navigable. Two of the canals, at Little Falls and Great Falls, both required locks. The Great Falls canal operated from 1802 to 1830 and was the most complicated part of the Patowmack project. Particularly impressive is the final set of locks that were cut through rock to bring the canal back to the Potomac downstream. The locks drop dramatically 20 to 30 feet. They were blasted with black powder in a dangerous and complicated construction project. Remains of a wooden canal lock door were discovered at the site several years ago and are being preserved by the Park Service.
Additional evidence of the Patowmack Company canals can be found along the Potomac at the Little Falls Skirting Canal, in the District of Columbia; the Seneca Falls Canal near Seneca Lake; Shenandoah Falls near Harpers Ferry; and House Falls above Harpers Ferry.
Virginia's Great Falls Park is also the site of a once-brawling community known as "Matildaville," named for the first wife of General "Light Horse" Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, one of the town's developers in the 1790s. A number of houses and mills were built, but the town declined in the early 1800s. The decline paralleled the failing fortunes of the Virginia canal, which was eclipsed by the more ambitious Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on the Maryland side. The remains of Matildaville include the foundations of Dickey's Inn, a tavern that survived until the 1940s, when it burned, and a few walls of the canal superintendent's house. The canal ceased operations in 1830, and Matildaville sank slowly into obscurity. More on the history of the are can be found at this link.