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john quincy adamsEnlarge John Quincy Adams (1767-1848)

Both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal scheduled their groundbreaking ceremonies on the same day, July 4, 1828, and both enterprises invited President John Quincy Adams to their festivities. Long a champion of national transportation improvements, Adams wished the best for these two ventures, and his administration had provided federal funds for both of their preliminary topographical surveys. But he could not be at two ceremonies at once, and he opted to attend the groundbreaking for the C&O Canal.

When Adams was handed a spade to scoop up the first clumps of C&O dirt, he struck a shallow root on his first try. He hit the root again on his second, and it was only after he unceremoniously took off his coat that he finally succeeded in shoveling up a quantity of soil worthy of the occasion. Perhaps Adams's difficulty was a sign of what lay ahead for the C&O. Thanks largely to competition from the B&O Railroad, the canal never became a profitable enterprise

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), after Thomas Sully
Engraving, 1826
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;gift of Hirschl and Adler Galleries