C&D Canal: Charting the course that began with mapmaker’s dream
Swedish explorers founded a short-lived colony around the Delaware Valley in 1638. Their forays west from the river familiarized them with the topography and some of the rivers feeding the upper Chesapeake Bay.
John Rising, the last Swedish governor, was convinced that there was justification for a cross-peninsular canal connecting these two Atlantic seaboard waterways, and in 1654, he wrote to superiors in Sweden that such a project would make his colony “more secure against Virginia” and make it possible to “carry on trade with them making a passage from their River [the Elk] to the said kill [the Christina River through today’s Wilmington, DE] by which we could bring the Virginia goods here & store them, and load our ships with them for a return cargo.”
Security from Virginia, though, was not the problem. In 1655, Dutch Commander Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam and Manhattan Island fame sailed into the Delaware with seven armed ships. After a hopeless battle, the Swedes capitulated to Stuyvesant’s generous terms. He’d help the colonists leave if they wished, or they could simply stay and have life go on as before.
Stuyvesant did not hold his conquest at ease, as the Dutch claim was opposed by counterclaims from Maryland partisans of Lord Baltimore, who wanted to extend their dominion east to the Delaware River. Stuyvesant appointed two emissaries, one appropriately named Resolve Waldron, and a second, Augustine Herrman, to go to St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s colonial capital, and present their case to the governor and Council of Maryland.
A journal of their expedition records that they departed from New Amstel (New Castle, DE) Sept. 13, 1659, and made their way to a stream that Native Americans told them flowed into the Bay of Virginia. The stream was navigable a long distance before it eventually joined the Elk River, unlike today, when centuries of agriculture and erosion have rendered all of the Elk’s branches unnavigable.
Although the complex proceedings were unsuccessful at resolving the issue of possession, both groups of settlers became well-acquainted, and Herrman chose to settle in Maryland.
Herrman was a native of Prague in what was then Bohemia, where he and his family were driven out by Hussite religious reformers. Herrman served Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus during the 30 Years War (1618-1648).
He arrived in America in 1633 as an employee of the Dutch West India Company, and in 1644, Herrman “came out [to the Colonies] under the patronage of the Chamber of Enckhuysen as an agent of the mercantile house of Gabry [Peter Gabry & Sons] of Amsterdam.” He made several voyages to Holland, dabbled with part ownership in a privateer that attacked Spanish shipping, and spent part of 1652 as a “fugitive” from creditors. He was granted “liberty and freedom” from these matters a year later and by 1647 had became a Dutch official who would later attract Stuyvesant’s attention when the Delaware River claims issue transpired.
Herrman, who became enamored of Maryland’s good land and soils during the negotiations, struck a couple of deals with Phillip Calvert, who acted on behalf of Lord Baltimore. Herrman named the town of Ceciltown after Cecilius Lord Baron of Baltimore. In return, he received a patent on about 4,000 acres of the land between the Elk and Oppoquermine rivers, which was subsequently named Bohemia Manor. The name lives on today in the Bohemia River, formerly the Oppoquermine River.
As part of the deal with Lord Baltimore, Herrman agreed to conduct a survey and produce a map that later became the definitive Chesapeake Map for the next century.
It was a difficult task and was not completed until about 1670. Published by Faithorne of London in 1672, it features a medallion portrait of Herrman — the only surviving likeness.
Herrman’s Map was not published “whole” but was instead printed on four separate pages. The 2-by-3 foot map has extraordinary detail, locating each of hundreds of plantation houses. The accuracy of his placement, confirmed by modern archaeology, allows researchers to analyze distances between dwellings and their proximity to navigable water throughout Colonial Maryland as features of social structure and the economy.
There are only four known copies of Herrman’s map, two in Paris, one in London and the last in Rhode Island at Brown University, where it was found by Dudley Willis, a DuPont engineer. He photoduplicated the four panels and printed a single codified image in September 1970, the 300th anniversary of the original.
While Herrman and his crew were surveying their mapping project they, too, recognized the close proximity of the westward arms of the Delaware and eastward arms of the Chesapeake.
He wrote in 1661, “The Minqaskil and the aforesaid Bohemia River run there within a league [3 miles] from each other from where we shall in time have communication with each other by water.”
Herrman went on to establish a cart road overland for his merchandise. He was on good terms with parties in both colonies and it was agreed that those on the New Castle side would clear half of the road to Herrman’s plantations, and he the other half.
The question of a boundary between the Delaware and Maryland colonies remained in relatively amicable dispute during this time.
In 1669, the Council of Maryland and Gov. Francis Lovelace ordered a survey of the area north from “Whorekill.” The surveyors were to find the 40th degree of north latitude. The area to the south just happened to include New Castle.
The next year, Lord Baltimore’s representatives again tried unsuccessfully to sweep these territories into Maryland’s control.
Herrman sought to have the boundaries of his lands include the route for any future canal and in 1671, received another grant from Baltimore for St. Augustine Manor, which bounded the Delaware from St. Georges Creek to Appoquinimink Creek, ensuring that he would own the entire canal route. Within a century the estates assembled by Herrman would grow to 20,000 acres, spanning parts of both Maryland and Delaware.
Dr. Benjamin Bullivant wrote about another overland route in 1679 “About 8 myles below New Castle is a Creek, by wch you may come to a neck of land 12 myles over … wch are drawn goods to & from Maryland & Sloopes also of 30 tuns are carryed overland in this place on certain sleds drawn by oxen, & launched again into the water on ye other side.”
Herrman, who wrote of the canal again in 1680, appears to have died in 1686 without seeing any start of a canal.
The resources to build a canal continued to evade advocates for decades, and it wasn’t until 1769 that the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia undertook the first surveys for five possible canal routes through what would be the Delmarva Peninsula.
One route was, predictably, from the Bohemia River to Appoquinimink Creek. Other routes were the Sassafras River to Appoquinimink Creek; the Chester River to Bombay Hook; the upper Elk River to Hamburg; and the upper Elk River to the Christina River above New Castle.
The process was interrupted by the American Revolution, although all five survey routes appear on a map by Thomas Shallus published in 1799.
It was around that time that Maryland led neighboring states in chartering a company to construct the C&D Canal, raising $500,000 in shares of $200 each.
Some of the finances were committed, and work began in 1802 on a feeder canal from the head of Elk Creek (along a route approximately aligned with today’s U.S. Route 40 toward Glasgow, DE) that would supply water for the necessary locks.
Benjamin H. Latrobe, the chief engineer, estimated Big Elk Creek could supply enough water to operate 190 locks a day, a figure that would be questioned in the future.
Work on a canal lay fallow until 1812, when war with Britain made an inland route desirable to avoid coastal blockades. More shares were subscribed by investors; a president and directors were elected. The work was again interrupted while British war parties made incursions in Tidewater, attacked Baltimore and burned the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
None of the originally surveyed alignments was chosen. John Randel, an engineer, looked at Latrobe’s figures and estimated that from July through October, streamflow would permit the operation of only 30 full locks, thus limiting passage to just six vessels per day in those months.
Randel — as early as 1823 — recommended that the investment be made at the outset to deepen the canal so that sea level on Delaware Bay could supply the eastern locks without relying on stream flow.
Actual excavation on the final route — from Back Creek off the Elk River to Scott Run on the Delaware side — finally began on March 26, 1824.
Thirteen months later, the challenging Deep Cut near today’s Summit Bridge began. This was an ambitious effort for the time, and the steep embankments were excavated into barrels subsequently dragged up the 90-foot slope. Parts of the embankment repeatedly collapsed back into the canal and during the construction, 375,000 cubic yards of material had to be re-excavated and hauled up again.
In some places, many acres of the spoil piles were “… thatched with straw, like an Irish cabin to keep them dry and render them tenacious enough to maintain the position in which they were originally placed.”
Excavation at various sites intersected ancient marine fossil deposits, which must have mystified many of the laborers, being so far inland from any present oceanic habitat. Some deposits with trilobites and baculites reached back 500 million years. Today, the dredge spoil deposits from these and subsequent excavations draw fossil hunters and yield impressive ancient sharks’ teeth.
The canal was slowly dug to its planned depth of 10 feet with a bottom width of 36 feet over a length of 13.625 miles. It was advertised as having a 7-foot draft capacity at its opening to ensure that developing shallow spots did not result in a grounded vessel stopping traffic. The canal excavation was completed and opened to navigation Oct. 17, 1829.
It had cost $2.25 million, less than today’s annual maintenance and operation budget for the canal.
Tolls were instituted to help pay for canal upkeep and to eventually provide a return for investors. Passage for a vessel, including the locks, was $7, and various bulk cargos, such as Indian corn, were a few cents.
One of the canal’s features, the Summit Bridge, essentially a covered bridge 247 feet long and about 90 feet above the canal bottom, spanned the Deep Cut and was itself an engineering wonder for the early 19th century. While the modern bridge near that site is also called Summit Bridge, the original was locally known as Buck Bridge after an adjacent tavern which displayed a buck on its sign.
There were four locks, that were later reduced to three.
Two towns sprang up where they were placed on the alignment: Chesapeake City on Back Creek and Delaware City on the eastern end. There were originally two locks at each of these locations.
Locks were necessary because the inland portion of the canal was above sea level, even when dug to its planned depth. Water from nearby streams was used to fill this portion of the canal on high ground so ships could float through.
Each passage through a lock chamber required expending water from the tributary creek supply — roughly 44,000 cubic feet or 330,000 gallons — and there was a limit to what creeks could furnish. In drought or with snowpack before a melt, a busy canal could exhaust the available water. This set limits to the canal’s business growth as shipping capacity was directly dependent, in the early years, upon natural rainfall and stream flow.
The lock chambers had gates at either end, and when a ship wanted to lock in to a higher portion of the canal, it entered at sea level and the doors were closed behind her. Water was added to the chamber until it was full and the floating vessel had risen exactly to the height of the upper water level fed by the creeks. The doors providing egress were opened and the ship floated out.
To descend, a ship entered a similar chamber and the gates were closed. Water was allowed out through valves until the ship, floating as the water level declined, was at a lower level on the other side. The lower set of gates released her and she was on her way. Multiple locks could be used to raise ships greater distances vertically than were possible with a single set.
Despite their simplified description, locks were complex engineering products, erected on a platform of closely driven pilings, capped with cement and overlaid with stone flooring before the walls of the lock were set up.
They sometimes enclosed duct and valve systems, called wickets, for water supply and removal.
There were two kinds of gates that could be installed, first a leveraged pair of miter swing gates held against each other by the weight of water in a full lock and easily opened by a man pushing the levers, when the pressure on both sides was equalized. The second type was a gravity drop gate which, when closed, was held up by water pressure, and which fell to the lock floor when both chambers of the lock were full.
A surviving lock at Delaware City can still be seen. Its chamber is 200 feet long by 22 feet wide, accommodating a working draft of 7 feet.
Many shipbuilding adaptations maximized the efficiency of traffic and the movement of goods and people through the canal. When power-driven vessels came into vogue, special steamers were designed that were close to lock size and relatively high and narrow with multiple decks carrying passengers. Canal barges, likewise, were very close to lock length. Some built at the turn of the 20th century in Bethel, DE, could still be found in the 1970s, abandoned but intact, around the Chesapeake.
Also at Bethel, schooners with boxlike hulls were specially built to fit the lock chambers. They were three masters with gaff head rigs and known as Chesapeake “Ram” Schooners.
The last surviving ram schooner, Victory Chimes was purchased by the Domino’s Pizza Chain and renamed Domino Effect. She was traveling up my home creek in 1989, carrying Domino’s employees who had excelled at their work, when the donkey engine used to help hoist her sails broke down. Remarkably, a part needed to make the repair — a glass-barreled oil cup — was found in one of the drawers of my machine shop The ship’s mate was able to use it and got the old engine running.
In the days of sail — before engines, or even steam propulsion — most vessels of the day could rarely rely on enough wind to permit sailing through. For decades, canals had towpaths along the banks for mules to haul boats along.
Ship’s captains, in addition to paying tolls and freights, had to contract for their own towing with mule skinners along the canal. So long as the canal had locks, this was a source of revenue to local men. Don Briscoe, who works for the Army Corps of Engineers at Chesapeake City, says his father, now 92, used to handle mules on the towpath as a youth. The father said the canal was divided into portions, and teams would change at predetermined points, such as Chesapeake City.
Power-driven vessels were to end the mule skinner’s trade. John Stevens, who was to have a significant role in the C&D Canal’s history, built the steamship Phoenix and placed her in service on Delaware Bay.
In 1813 Captain, Edward Trippe, heading a syndicate of investors, built the steamer Chesapeake at Flannigan’s Wharf in Baltimore. In the years before the canal opened, the Chesapeake carried passengers to the head of the Bay through a region notorious for its periods of sailboat-disabling calms to meet overland transport across the peninsula.
Steam eventually revolutionized scheduled passenger service on the canal and this technology supplanted sail as the preferred transportation mode. A steam tug could pull a whole chain of lighters, barges or sailing vessels down the C&D Canal, sometimes packing several smaller ones in to lock up or down.
The new canal seemed to be in position to become a major conduit of commerce, as it had been envisioned by Swedish Colonial Gov. John Rising two centuries earlier.
Augustine Herrman made a will in 1665, still on the books at Baltimore in the 1880s, which requests in part: “I do appoint my burial and sepulcher, if I die in this bay or in Delaware, to be in Bohemia Manor, in my garden by my wife Johanna Varlett’s and that a great sepulcher stone shall be eriected upon our graves three feet above the ground, like unto a table, with engraven the letters that I am the first seater and beginner of Bohemia Manor…”
The will was never proved and Herrman’s memorial never erected. Generations beyond his lifetime, his dream for a canal was realized and I’ll wager he would be pleased with that as a monument.
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