Canal links past, present

History: The C&D Canal opened in 1829, shortening the trip between Baltimore and Philadelphia by nearly 300 miles.

October 26, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON A LATE summer afternoon, a huge oil tanker bearing a Liberian registry glides past Chesapeake City. A lone man fishing from the banks of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal barely looks up as the ship slips by, its wake slapping against the banks.

Passing ships are as common as flies in this part of Cecil County. They have been since 1829, when the canal first opened with the aim of increasing commerce in the mid-Atlantic region. Since then, almost everything about the canal has changed -- but its purpose has not.

Then, as now, it linked the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, allowing ships to speed their way between Baltimore and Philadelphia, cutting nearly 300 miles from the voyage. And although recent years have seen renewed debate about the optimum depth of the vital shipping channel, few would dispute that its history has been a grand one.

The dream of a waterway cutting across the wedge of land separating the Chesapeake Bay from the Delaware River goes back to the earliest days of European settlers in Maryland. Augustine Herrman, an enterprising surveyor and mapmaker who settled in Cecil County in the mid-1600s, is credited with the idea of digging a canal through the narrow strip of land.

Subsequent dreamers, including Benjamin Franklin, were equally possessed of the notion. Surveys of the area were completed in the 1760s, and attempts were made as early as 1804 to build a canal. But it was not until 1829 that the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal finally opened.

Built by several thousand men over a five-year period, the 14-mile canal cost nearly $2.5 million.

Contributions came from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, public subscription, and about $450,000 from the federal government. It was among the largest and most expensive canals of its time.

With terminus points in Chesapeake City, Md., and Delaware City, Del., the canal could be traversed in a matter of hours, shaving several days off the journey between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Teams of mules on the towpath were hooked to barges, pulling them through the canal and into its locks.

Developments prosper

From the beginning, the canal was a heavily trafficked passenger and commercial route, due in part to the lack of overland roads. In turn, said Michael Dixon, a historian and director of the Cecil County Historical Society, the opening of the canal made possible the development of the Chesapeake end of the canal, including Chesapeake City.

"At the entrance of the man-made ribbon of water across the peninsula, where a lock controlled passage into the C&D, old salts, mule drovers, captains and merchants transacted business, it being the logical place for enterprise," Dixon said.

In many ways, the canal was a great success. Still, it was confronted from the start by challenges such as the instability of the banks -- which sent huge piles of dirt into the canal's channel -- to maintaining the proper water level in the canal, to the necessarily high tolls levied on ships passing through the canal.

Added to that were the seemingly endless improvements the canal needed, costing millions of dollars in the years before the Civil War and reducing the canal's profitability.

The war effort

According to Edward Ludwig III in his book The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal: 150th Anniversary, 1829-1979 the canal's greatest achievement might have been its central role in America's wars. Beginning with the Civil War, Ludwig writes, the C&D Canal played a critical role in transporting troops and materials from the North to Washington.

"Vessel after vessel, loaded with troops, passed through the waterway on April 20, 1861, heading south to defend Washington. During those few days of our Nation's history the great cost of constructing the canal was justified over and over as the man-made ditch saved the Capital from invasion by Southern troops."

Of World War I, Ludwig writes: "Though outmoded with its ten foot depth and three narrow locks the Canal aided the war effort in many ways. Millions and millions of feet of lumber passed through the waterway as this product was in great demand for building barracks and wooden ships and for many war orders that could be carried out by using wood instead of steel."

By World War I, however, the canal was fighting for its survival. Freight was increasingly being hauled on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the canal's major competitor. And the C&D's shallow depth and outdated lock system severely limited the canal's ability to accommodate larger ships with heavier cargoes. Its future was uncertain.

Several years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a commission to study the feasibility of a new canal. Ultimately, it was deemed impractical and attention turned once again to upgrading the existing canal -- this time under the auspices of the federal government.

A new era begins

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