The year was 1829, and the news was big — big enough to be trumpeted on a broadside that exercised all of the exaggerated fonts and eye-grabbing capitalization of the day:
“Notice is hereby given,” it stated, “that this CANAL is NOW OPEN FOR NAVIGATION ... The rates of Toll have been fixed so low, as to make this the CHEAPEST as well as the most EXPEDITIOUS and Safe channel of communication, between the waters of the Chesapeake and Delaware. Horses for towing vessels may be hired at reasonable prices at each end of the Canal.”
They had reason to shout. The new waterway, which today is the only 19th-century canal built in the United States that remains a major shipping route, cut about 500 miles from the travel route for vessels between the ports of Baltimore and Philadelphia. While the world’s eyes turned southwest toward the great canal in Panama, which wouldn’t open for another 83 years, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal — C&D for short — quietly transformed shipping on the East Coast. It remains a vital waterway, with more than 15,000 vessels transiting annually.
I have traveled the C&D Canal dozens of times in sailboats, sidling past the enormous walls of car carriers and container ships as they make their careful way along the waterway’s narrow confines. And every time, like all of these world travelers, I have passed three unassuming, interconnected buildings that sit beside the canal in Chesapeake City, MD. Their elegant flagstone walls and peaked roofs look like something from another era — which they are.
Built in 1837, 1851 and 1853, these buildings, which served as a pump house to raise the canal’s water level, are on the National Register of Historic Places and today house the C&D Canal Museum. The remarkable examples of 19th-century engineering within their stout stone walls — including the oldest steam engines still on their original foundations in the country — are just one reason why this museum is, for my money (even though it’s free), one of the most riveting in the Bay region.
Most museums have to move or replicate historical features to represent them. But the C&D Canal Museum itself is a piece of history, intact and in place, resulting in a kind of sensory time travel. You can still smell the oil and fluids that kept the enormous pistons of the engines sliding smoothly in their cylinders. And, the past wafts upward in the moist, cool air of the cavern housing the massive cypress water wheel that moved water into the canal. That tangible history lingers as you walk outside and see a modern car carrier sliding silently by in today’s greatly expanded, sea level canal.
“It was one of the first civil engineering projects proposed in the New World, and one of the most difficult to carry out,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has placed the canal on its list of national historic landmarks. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has also listed the engines and water wheel as national landmarks.
Entering the museum, you encounter the broadsides and other bits of the canal’s history, including artifacts, displays and photographs that introduce the story of the canal. It began when Augustine Herman, as early as 1661, envisioned a waterway connecting the top of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. It would be another 100 years before that dream would edge toward reality, with an initial route mapped out in 1764. Another 35 years would pass before the young states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware signed on with the fledgling federal government to buy stock in what would become the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company.
It took four years and $2.5 million to build the canal, which initially had four locks. A marble plaque embedded on an exterior wall of the museum building, dedicated at the canal’s opening in 1829, provides some of the pertinent figures, principals and engineering challenges: “On the Deep Cut more than 375,000 cubic yards of earth slipped from the regulated slopes of the sides, and passed into the chamber of the canal.” Those 375,000 cubic yards were hand-hauled out of the Deep Cut, then dragged up and over 90-foot embankments by ropes attached to wooden barrels, an example of which is on display.
“These and many other difficulties having been overcome,” the plaque continues, “the water was introduced on the 4th of July, 1829, and the final accomplishment of this great National work was celebrated on the 17th of October of the same year at which time the navigation was opened.”
Some salient facts are carved into the marble: Length 11.3 miles, width at waterline 66 feet; width at bottom 36 feet; depth of water 10 feet; depth of excavation at summit 76 ½ feet; length of Summit Bridge 247 feet —
a covered bridge spanning the canal, itself an engineering marvel — and height above bottom of canal 90 feet; length of locks 100 feet; width of locks, 22 feet.
A copy of an original rules book lays out the fees: A hogshead of wine or rum or other spirits was $1.25, while a hogshead of tobacco or beer was $1; cider, rice or molasses 75 cents; every bushel of wheat, peas, beans or flaxseed a mere 4 cents; and barrel of pork, beef or fish 30 cents.
From the start, the canal had problems maintaining the depth of its channel, and in 1837 the first pump house at Chesapeake City was built to divert water into the canal from neighboring Back Creek. Even this proved inadequate, and in 1852 the engineers added a second building, installing a Merrick & Sons steam engine to run a massive cypress water wheel, designed by Merrick engineer Barnabas Bartols.
Two years later, they added a second engine, and this aggregate of machinery and engineering is the breathtaking heart of this place.
Still on their original foundations, the engines are in separate but conjoined buildings, with the enormous wheel poised in its own thick-walled chamber between them. Their “walking beams” — large, pivoting beams that apply force to the pumps — soar upward into the second story. Fluted columns hold up Herculean crossmembers, and the various connecting rods glisten with elegant precision. In their individual parts and as a symphonic whole, they are industrial artwork that, providing a combined 350 horsepower, operated until May 12, 1927, with only one recorded breakdown.
Between the engines and attached to each by a 13-inch-diameter iron axle, is the wheel. Plunging into a 22-foot deep well, the cypress wheel is 38 feet in diameter and 10 feet wide. Ten buckets built into its circumference are held by 12 segments of cast iron gear rings whose teeth link into the axle; each weighs 1,860 pounds.
Water from Back Creek was channeled into the well, where the wheel would lift 20,000, or 84.3 tons, of water per minute — 1.2 million gallons per hour. The wheel moved the water into an upper race which carried it into the canal about 960 feet east of the lock.
You don’t have to be an engineer to geek out here. The physical presence of these enormous machines is like standing next to a locomotive, now silent but still emanating a raw power that permeates the very walls.
By 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt (who would also have a major influence on the completion of the Panama Canal) approved a study into expanding the C&D Canal and making it a fully sea level waterway. By 1927, this expansion was finished, and since then the canal has continued to be widened, lengthened and deepened to its present length of 14 miles, width of 450 feet and depth of 30 feet.
In one corner of the museum, a screen displays what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers canal controllers, housed in a building next door, are checking as they monitor vessels on the canal. You can see what ships are en route, their estimated arrival time at Chesapeake City, their length, port of origin, destination and name.
You can also walk outside and, standing in front of the machinery and reflecting on dreams that harken back to 1661, watch as those ships pass by, with the dark, fast-flowing water of the C&D Canal barely changing with their passage.
The C&D Canal Museum in Chesapeake City, MD, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, April through October. Admission is free, tours are self-guided and there is plenty of parking. For information, call 410-885-5622.
From the museum, it’s an easy to walk to Chesapeake City, a destination in and of itself, with waterfront restaurants, shops and bed-and-breakfasts. To make a weekend of it, spend a day in town and at the museum, and a second day on the northern side of the canal exploring the C&D Canal Recreational Trail. This newly finished waterfront trail is open for walking, bicycling and hiking for 17 miles, encompassing the length of the canal to its original eastern terminus in Delaware City, DE, where the only one of the original four locks is still in place. For information, visit: