Many of the workers who built the canal were Dutch, German, Irish and English immigrants who were promised a better life in America. They worked long hours for little pay and created a stair case effect by constructing seventy-four lift locks that changed the water level to move cargo from Georgetown to Cumberland and vice versa. As construction moved west from Georgetown sections of the canal opened. In 1830 the canal stretched from Georgetown to Seneca, then in 1833 it reached Harpers Ferry, then to Hancock, Maryland in 1839, and finally reached its end of Cumberland, Maryland in 1850.
The C&O Canal operated from 1850 until 1924. It was a seven-day trip from Cumberland to Georgetown. The canal boats carried loads of cargo mainly coal. The canal boats design was to move a much cargo as possible. The boatmen had only 12 feet by 12 feet space for living on the ship what was the family's living quarters. In the 12' x 12' cabin it had the basic living necessities of a coal burning stove, bunk beds with hay mattresses, a table, and a small cupboard for supplies. The boats also had a stable and hay storage for the mules who pulled the boats along the towpath. Lock tenders were also an important part of the canal operation. They worked around the clock; they were constantly on duty and had to look for approaching boats. They would listen for the boatman's call of hey-y-y-y lock which singled that the lock tender was needed.
Today, the 184.5 miles is tended by the National Park Service. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park offers visitors a chance to embrace the history as well as nature. The park offers visitors the opportunity to walk or bike the towpath, as well as horseback riding along the path. Many of the lock areas have visitor centers where one can learn more about the history of the canal and experience ranger led programs. Both Williamsport and Great Falls offer boat tours and rides for their visitors to enjoy and gain a hands on approach to history.