George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Rumsey, 8 August 1785

To James Rumsey

Shanadoah Falls 8th Augt 1785.


As you have attended the President & Directors in their View and Examination of the River from the upper Part of the Seneca Falls to the Great Falls and from the flat water above to the flat water below the Shanadoah Falls, you are possessed not only of their Opinion of the Course in general to be improved and their idea of the manner of effecting ⟨the work, but also of their sentiments on many particular⟩ Spots1—The President and Directors have no doubt could they personally attend the Work in its progress and see the River at those places in its different Situations they might in many Instances depart from their present Opinions—The Nature of the Work and our Situations make it therefore necessary to leave it in your discretion to vary from what you may have concieved our Opinion to be as to the Tract or manner of executing the Work. And we do it the more chearfully as you seem to be equally impressed as Ourselves with the Importance of a straight Navigation and the Advantages of avoiding as far as well may be cross currents.2 The Opportunity you will have to watch the Water at different Heights and your Industry in examining more minutely the different obstructions, will enable you to exercise the discretionary Power left with you to your own Credit and our Satisfaction.

You are already apprised of our Change of Resolution as to the place of working the upper Party and the Reasons which induced that Change, and as effecting the Navigation through the Shenadoah and Seneca Falls will be immediately advantageous to a great Extent of Country you are not to consider yourself restricted to the Number of fifty Hands for each Party, but you are to employ as many as you have an Opportunity to engage and you can work to advantage so that the work may be expedited; but you must immediately, on exceeding one hundred in the whole give information to the President least any Disappointment should happen in the ready Payment of the Company’s Debts, which by all means is to be avoided3—for the President & Directors, G. Washington

LB, DNA: RG 79, Records of the Potomac Co. and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co., item 159. This copy of the letter is taken from the minutes of the meeting on 8 Aug. of the president and directors of the Potowmack Company “at the Shanadoah Falls” (Harpers Ferry), with GW and the directors George Gilpin, John Fitzgerald, and Thomas Johnson present. The letter is preceded in the minutes by the following paragraphs: “The President and all the Directors having Yesterday viewed and examined the Shanadoah Falls from the flat Water above to that below were unanimously of Opinion that the Navigation may be carried through the falls without a Lock and that the purposes of the Incorporation would be best promoted by the spediest removal of the Obstructions within the above described Space.

“It is therefore ordered, that the Party directed by the former Order to be employed above the Shanadoah Falls be immediately employed in clearing and improving the River for Navigation from Payne’s upwards through the Shanadoah Falls.

“The following Letter of Instruction was wrote to Mr Rumsey the principal Conductor.”

1The Potowmack Company held its second meeting in Georgetown, Md., at noon on 1 Aug. “when the President [GW] & directors of the Company made a report of their transactions since their appointment” at the first company meeting on 17 May 1785 (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:170). For the first meeting of the Potowmack Company, see GW to Thomas Johnson and Thomas Sim Lee, 18 May 1785, n.1; for the “transactions” of the company’s directors, see GW to James Rumsey, 5 June, n.4, and 2 July, n.3. After the company’s meeting at noon on 1 Aug., according to GW: “The Board of Directors then sat, and after coming to some resolutions respecting rations to be allowed the Workmen—the mode of payment—manner of keeping an acct. of their work &ca. &ca. and to a determination of proceeding first to the Senneca Falls and next to those at the Mouth of Shannondoah for the purpose of investigation & to direct the operations thereat adjourned Sine Die” (ibid., 170). The minutes of the directors’ meeting on 1 Aug. show that they examined eight accounts presented against the Potowmack Company and ordered a total of £182.7.4 to be paid. They also ordered £50 Virginia currency to be given to James Rumsey to be expended “for the use of the Company” (DNA: RG 79, Records of the Potomac Co. and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co., item 159). Finally the directors issued the following instructions which perhaps reflect the president’s experience with military procedure: “Ordered, That each Overseer keep a Book in which the Name of every Person employed under his Direction must be enrolled and with Columns properly ruled to keep an exact Account of the Days on which each Hand is employed and also of the Time he shall not be engaged in the Service which Account once in every Fortnight is to be rendered to the Assistant Manager, who if he approves the same shall give a certificate thereof, and shall afterwards be examined by ⟨the⟩ principal Manager and if approved also by him to be a⟨n⟩ Authority to the Treasurer to furnish such Sums of Money as will be sufficient to discharge the same—And it is the Order of this Board that twenty six working Days are to be accounted as a Month” (DNA: RG 79, Records of the Potomac Co. and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co., item 159).

On 2 Aug. GW “Left George Town about 10 Oclock, in Company with all the Directors except Govr. Lee” and with others to go up the Potomac. Rumsey and his assistant manager, Richardson Stewart, joined GW’s party on 3 Aug. in canoes “to examine the falls . . . beginning at the head of them . . . through the whole by water, and continued from the foot of them to the Great fall” (ibid., 170–71). The party then walked back on the Maryland side of the river from the Great Falls to Seneca falls (or rapids), a distance of about five miles. Before the meeting on 8 Aug. at Harpers Ferry, GW, the directors, and the supervisors of the work examined the river up to Shenandoah falls and observed Rumsey’s workmen as the clearing of the river got under way (see source note). GW’s diary for the first ten days of August provides a detailed account of his movements and observations in his inspection of the upper Potomac (ibid., 169–81).

2After their examination of the river from the Seneca to the Great Falls on 3 Aug., GW wrote in his diary: “The Water through these Falls is of sufficient depth for good Navigation. . . . The principal difficulties lye in rocks which occasion a crooked passage. These once removed, renders the passage safe without the aid of Locks. . . . It appearing to me, and was so, unanimously determined by the Board of Directors, that a channel through the bed of the river in a strait direction . . . would be preferable” (ibid., 172).

3For new decisions reached by the directors of the Potowmack Company regarding a labor force for Rumsey, see GW to Thomas Johnson and Thomas Sim Lee, 10 Sept., n.1.

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