Canal has long been important artery for regional freight-hauling

WAY BACK WHEN

March 02, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The tragic events earlier this week when the freighter A.V. Kastner collided with a tug hauling barges in fog on the Elk River, killing four crewmen, recalled just how busy and important this river, which leads to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, is to both commercial shipping and recreational boating traffic.

The accident occurred near the western approach of the 14-mile long C&D Canal, which links the upper Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, making it the busiest canal in the country, and the third busiest in the world.

Dreams of a canal uniting the two bodies of water date to the 1600s, when Augustine Herman, lord of Bohemia Manor on the Eastern Shore, wrote to Dutch authorities proposing that a canal be constructed across the flat marshes separating the Elk and the Delaware rivers.

He had conducted extensive surveys of the area in 1662, but Dutch officials failed to act on his proposal, forcing him to continue traveling over a rutted cart road connecting Bohemia Manor with New Castle, Del.

The idea of a canal slumbered until 1764, when Thomas Gilpin, a Delaware merchant who owned 1,000 acres at the head of the Chester River on the Eastern Shore, revived interest in Herman's plan. Again, officials failed to act on the idea of a barge canal.

Two years later, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Benjamin Bush met in Wilmington to discuss the canal. George Washington, a strong believer in the project, said he was pleased to find "the spirit of inland navigation prevailing so generally."

In 1799, Maryland chartered the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Co., with an initial stock offering of $500,000. In 1823, the Delaware Legislature appropriated $25,000 for the project; the renewal of the charter of the Philadelphia Bank was dependent on the bank loaning the canal company $100,000.

Digging with picks and shovels, largely Irish immigrant laborers began building the new 10-foot deep, 36-foot wide canal in 1824. They worked under the supervision of a team of workers who had dug the Erie Canal across upstate New York in the early 1820s.

Some 2,600 workers were paid 75 cents a day while toiling away through mosquito-infested swamps to complete the new waterway. Besides the tidal marshes, there were unstable hills through which the canal had to be carved.

On Oct. 17, 1829, the canal, which had four locks and ran from Back Creek, a tributary of the Elk River, to Reedy Point on the Delaware River, was opened for operation. It had been constructed at a cost of $2,250,000, and shortened the sea route between Baltimore and Philadelphia by some 300 miles.

Ships and barges carrying coal, lumber, grain, fish, cotton, iron, whiskey and other products were towed by mules that navigated them through the canal. Packet boats carrying both passengers and freight eventually used the C&D.

A unique feature of the canal, installed in 1852, was a steam pump placed at Summit, Del., that lifted 200,000 cubic feet of water an hour a distance of 16 feet. The 39-foot steam-driven water wheel, designed by Barnabas Bartols, an engineer with Merrick & Sons, was in daily use until the 1920s.

During the Civil War, the canal played an important strategic role in moving both supplies and troops to battlegrounds in the South.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the canal suffered from railroad competition and the fact that larger steam vessels could no longer traverse its narrow confines.

In 1919, the federal government purchased the privately owned canal for $2.5 million and designated it the Intra-Coastal Waterway Delaware River to Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Maryland.

Under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers, major improvements that deepened the canal to 12 feet and widened it to 90 feet were immediately instituted. Locks were removed, and the canal was converted to a sea-level operation. A new entrance was moved from Delaware City to Reedy Point, a few miles south of the original entrance.

On May 15, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button in the White House that raised the span of the Reedy Point lift bridge, admitting marine traffic. The first vessel to enter the improved canal was the Memoosha, a yacht owned by Alfred I. du Pont, which led a flotilla of other ships and boats.

The canal was again deepened during the 1930s, and new bridges carrying highways and the Pennsylvania Railroad were built over it in the intervening years. For owners of steamship companies, the canal had a direct economic impact. Not only did it save 300 miles, it also saved 24 hours in steaming time between Baltimore and Philadelphia, and 148 miles and a half day to and from New York.

During World War II, with the Nazi U-boat menace threatening shipping, the canal again played a strategic role as shipping moved north and south through the safe inland passage.

During its nearly 180-year history, the canal has suffered its share of maritime disasters.

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