Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Company
Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Company
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Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Company
July 26, 1907
10" (w) by 7" (h)
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In the mid‑17th century, Augustine Herman, a mapmaker and Prague native who had served as an envoy for the Dutch, observed that two great bodies of water, the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, were separated only by a narrow strip of land. Herman proposed that a waterway be built to connect the two.
More than a century passed before any action was taken. In 1764, a survey of possible water routes across the Delmarva Peninsula was made. One was proposed by Thomas Gilpin, Sr., a Quaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who, along with other members of the American Philosophical Society, sought a waterway to shorten the shipping distance from the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia. He proposed a canal across the Delmarva Peninsula to connect the Chester River at modern-day Millington, Maryland, to the Delaware River. He even bought 39 acres of land, largely in and around Millington, but the canal would not become a reality for decades.
The idea was raised again in 1788 by regional business leaders, including noted Philadelphians Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. The canal would reduce, by nearly 300 miles, the water routes between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
In 1802, following actions by the legislatures of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Company was incorporated, with merchant and banker Joseph Tatnall as president. More surveys followed, and in 1804, construction of the canal began under Benjamin Latrobe. The work included 14 locks to connect the Christina River in Delaware with the Elk River at Welch Point, Maryland, but the project was halted two years later for lack of funds.
Construction The canal company was reorganized in 1822, and new surveys determined that more than $2 million in capital was needed to resume construction. Eventually, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased $100,000 in stock, the State of Maryland, $50,000; and Delaware, $25,000. The federal government invested $450,000, with the remainder subscribed by the public.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a vital yet unofficial role for the canal company in 1823 and 1824, providing two senior officers to help determine a canal route. The engineer officers and two civilian engineers recommended a new route with four locks, extending from Newbold's Landing Harbor (now Delaware City), westward to the Back Creek branch of the Elk River, Maryland.
Canal construction resumed in April 1824, and within several years some 2,600 men were digging and hauling dirt from the ditch. Laborers toiled with pick and shovel at the immense construction task, working for an average daily wage of 75 cents. The swampy marshlands along the canal's planned route proved a great impediment to progress; workers continuously battled slides along the "ditch's" soft slopes. It was 1829 before the C&D Canal Company could, at last, announce the waterway "open for business". Its construction cost of $3.5 million made it one of the most expensive canal projects of its time.
In 1825, due to the efforts of Benjamin Wright, the company fired the canal's chief engineer, John Randel Jr., who had surveyed its route and built the difficult eastern section. Randel sued the company for breach of contract, and in 1834 a jury returned an award to Randel of $226,885.84 (equivalent to $6,650,780 in 2022), a tremendous amount for the time. The canal company's appeals went as high as the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed the award. The company attempted to avoid paying the judgment, but the state legislatures of both Maryland and Delaware passed bills requiring the canal company to pay off its debts within five years. The huge award almost bankrupted the company.
The Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River were now connected by a navigation channel measuring nearly 14 miles long, 10 feet deep, 66 feet wide at the waterline and 36 feet wide along the channel bottom. A covered wooden bridge at Summit, Delaware, spanned the canal across the "Deep Cut", measuring 250 feet between abutments. The bridge floor was 90 feet above the channel bottom. Three wooden swing bridges also crossed the canal. Locks to pass vessels through the waterway's various levels were constructed at Delaware City, Delaware and St. Georges, Delaware, and two at Chesapeake City. Each measured 100 feet long and 22 feet wide and was eventually enlarged to 220 feet in length and 24 feet in width.
Teams of mules and horses towed freight and passenger barges, schooners and sloops through the canal. Cargoes included practically every useful item of daily life: lumber, grain, farm products, fish, cotton, coal, iron, and whiskey. Packet ships were eventually established to move freight through the waterway. One such enterprise - the Ericsson Line that operated between Baltimore and Philadelphia, and continued to carry passengers and freight through the canal into the 1940s. The cargo tonnage peaked in 1872 with more than 1.3 million tons transiting the canal.
Along the route across the top of the Delmarva Peninsula, at least six lighthouses warned barges and other vessels passing through the canal when they were approaching bridges and locks. These small wooden lighthouses had had red lanterns mounted atop them.
The Ericsson Line of steamboats originated as steamers built for freight only; however, the line converted to passenger boats during 1876 at the time of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as the demand for travel increased. The Baltimore and Philadelphia Steamship Companies, which operated the Ericsson line, built and furnished ships with seventy to eighty staterooms in addition to the freight facilities. In turn, these ships grew from less than one hundred to more than six hundred tons and greatly increased travel from Baltimore to Philadelphia. The Ericsson Line was named after its first ship, Ericsson, which was named after John Ericsson who developed the screw propeller that was installed on the vessel specifically designed for the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Ericsson was built at Reanie & Neafie's shipyard in Philadelphia by Anthony Groves, Jr. The ship, finished in 1843, was 78 feet in length and weighed eighty tons. It began operations in 1844 under the direction of Captain Noah F. Ireland. The Ericsson Line operated out of Baltimore's No. 1 Light Street Pier for 75 years, serving passenger and freight demands throughout the waterway with thirty registered steamers. The Ericsson Line's success brought utility and prosperity to the canal and promoted an expansion of trade by means of its growth and connection to the Atlantic Deeper Waterways Association of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
Loss of water in the locks was a problem from early on. As boats passed through at Chesapeake City, the equivalent of a full lock of water was lost to the lower-lying portion of the canal. This loss, compounded by leakage through the canal banks and normal evaporation, made it necessary to devise a means of lifting water into the project's upper part.
A steam operated pump was purchased in 1837 to raise water from Back Creek, and in 1852 a steam engine and large waterwheel were installed at the pumphouse in Chesapeake City. Measuring 39 feet in diameter and 10 feet wide, the iron and wood waterwheel had 12 troughs which filled with water as it turned; the water then spilled over the hub into the raceway and into the uppermost canal level. By 1854 a second steam engine was in use. The two 150 horsepower (110 kW) engines consumed eight tons of coal daily while lifting 170 tons of water per minute into the canal. The waterwheel and steam engines remained in continuous use through the mid‑1920s.
Throughout the 19th century, the canal's use continued to change with the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Rail Road being its only major competitor. Steam power brought larger and deeper-draft vessels that could not pass through the restricting locks. By the turn of the 20th century the decline in canal traffic and cost of operation and repairs reduced canal profits. Clearly a larger, wider, and deeper waterway was needed.
At the time, however, little thought was given to improving the existing canal. New companies were formed instead, considering at least six new canal routes, but committees and commissions appointed to study the issue failed to agree on a plan. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a new commission to report on the feasibility of converting the canal to a "free and open waterway."
In 1919 the federal government bought the canal for $2.5 million and designated it the "Intra-coastal Waterway Delaware River to Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Maryland." The purchase included six bridges and a railroad span owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. These were replaced during the 1920s by four vertical lift spans and a new railroad bridge.
Responsibility for operating, maintaining, and improving the waterway was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wilmington District.
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