Did you know that the White House had christened the last several days “Infrastructure Week”? No?
Don’t feel bad. It wasn’t only that adverse media coverage about a former FBI Director’s riveting Capitol Hill testimony left the White House press office too Comey-tose to press their agenda, but that the President had done nothing, really, to advance what purports to be his plan: a $200 billion boost in federal spending that is supposed to trigger $800 billion in private financing through public-private partnerships. Nothing, that is, except toss to the ground thick binders of what he said were unnecessary and burdensome environmental reviews holding up a highway project.
Once, American leaders did more than offer cheap theatrics over infrastructure. They proposed detailed, carefully reasoned plans that not only created jobs, but that helped knit together the youthful but unruly and disparate regions of a sprawling nation.
Including in our nation’s capital, as I discovered in the fleeting but fascinating glimpse of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that I photographed from a bus while on vacation three and a half years ago. I was on my way down to Foggy Bottom when, looking out the right side of the bus window, I saw this towpath—a sight far different from what you’re likely to encounter in the glass and marble structures that line today’s Washington.
As I write this, the Georgetown Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is closed for renovation. As soon as it’s completed, though, I advise you to take it in, and marvel at what people once did once they set their minds to it.
The seeds of the Chesapeake and Ohio were planted by George Washington, who with other entrepreneur formed the Potomac Company to improve navigation on the Potomac. Logistics stymied construction of that, but the building of the Erie Canal starting July 4, 1817 altered the views of lawmakers across the nation. (Let the record show that the effort to spearhead it was led by a New Yorker, DeWitt Clinton—who, as a lawyer and longtime legislator, knew how to educate and persuade people to his point of view—all without insulting tweets. Imagine!)
For the next decade or so, federal assistance to “internal improvements”—not just canals, but also roads and bridges—seemed the wave of the future. That came to an end when the President that Donald Trump likened himself incessantly to, Andrew Jackson, vetoed a major roads bill.
But in the meantime, the Chesapeake and Ohio Company was chartered in 1825 to build a shipping canal connecting two rivers: the Potomac’s tidewater in DC with the headwaters of the Ohio in western Pennsylvania. President John Quincy Adams broke ground for the canal in ceremonies at Little Falls, Maryland, on July 4, 1828. The construction effort survived even more dangers than the red tape that President Trump complained about, including recession, labor shortages, landowner fights concerning right-of-way, and a five-year construction shutdown. At last, it opened in 1850.
The canal’s heyday was relatively brief—only a generation or so after its midcentury opening—but it enabled engineers to surmount future challenges because of the solutions supplied here: dams, hundreds of culverts, and a 3,117-foot tunnel through a large shale rock formation.
Today’s challenges may be different, but are hardly insurmountable if approached with a spirit not just of ingenuity, but of intelligence and persuasiveness—qualities in desperately short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.