“Soon after the vessel passes the locks, the canal widens into what looks like a lovely river, and its umbrageous shores beneath the moon are as romantic as those of many a natural stream. One smells the odor of magnolia blossoms, sees the dim cattle at feed upon the gently sloping pastures, hears the croon of sleeping birds in the thicket, and can almost reach from the tiny window and snatch bits of foliage as the little steamer threshes slowly along its journey of fourteen miles to the final lock at Chesapeake City.”
“The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal- Gateway to Paradise”
— Edward J. Ludwig III
The opening of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in 1829 was a great relief for mariners. The trip down the Atlantic Coast from Cape Henlopen to Cape Charles and up the Bay to Baltimore and Port Deposit was long and hazardous in places. It was often a windward passage and could easily consume a week — sometimes longer.
Conversely, the passage out of Chesapeake Bay and up the coast before entering Delaware Bay could be life-threatening during northeast storms.
The canal, proposed 150 years before by the colonial settler Augustine Herrman and built partially on land he owned, offered escape from these trials.
But passage through the canal did involve costs: the hire of towpath teams or, later, for tugboats, cargo tariffs and pilotage.
Cargoes were charged according to a complicated tariff list, established and published by the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company at Dover, DE years before the canal actually opened:
Pipe (about 126 gallons) of wine or French brandy. . . . . . . . . . . . $1.25
Hogshead of tobacco. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $1.00
Barrel of beer, cider, rice or molasses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $.75
Barrel of pork. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$.30
Bushel of Indian corn or grain or salt. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$.02
Barrel of flour. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$.20
Ton of copper, lead or ore. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$1.10
Ton of stone or iron ore. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$.50
Ton of hemp, flax, potash, or bar of manufactured iron . . . . . . . . . .$2.00
For vessels with less than $4 in commodities aboard, the canal operators would take a portion of the cargo as toll. The toll for an empty boat was also $4, unless it was returning within 30 days from a toll-paid passage.
Sometimes there were delays as boats queued up for lock service, but it was worth the wait. The canal saved time and money, and weather was rarely an impediment, except when ice blocked the waterway.
Another obstacle was the matter of water supply, which was limited in summer and dry weather. As ship after ship required lock service, the canal seemed to be running out of water in its first decades of operation.
Engineers looked for alternatives and concluded that it would be feasible to pump water into lock reservoirs and reuse it. A huge, steam-operated pump was installed, which was then a pretty daring concept, as steam power was still very new in the United States at the start of the 1830s.
A steam pumping plant with two wings was built adjacent to the canal with an immense cypress water wheel between them. A second steam engine was added in 1854, and these two reciprocating steam engines turned the water wheel in common, operating as a single system. This pair of pumps — one was occasionally shut down for maintenance — turned the waterwheel without interruption for 76 years.
The water wheel was 38 feet in diameter and had 12 buckets, 10 feet wide, carrying water upward at each revolution — 20,000 gallons per minute or about 29 million gallons each day.
The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal’s water supply problems were solved for a time. But as the size and “draft” (depth of water needed to float the vessel) of vessels increased, and with lock size fixed at a 100 foot length and 22 foot breadth, the canal as well as the boxy ram schooners built in Bethel, DE, to fit them, were outclassed by larger modern vessels.
ïhe first steamship appeared on Delaware Bay in 1808. The first steamboat on the Bay, appropriately named the Chesapeake, was built in Baltimore in 1813. Soon, steamships were plying regular routes between Delaware, Norfolk and Baltimore.
A dozen steamships traversed the Chesapeake by 1819 according to Jean Baptiste Marestier, a visiting French engineer.
By midcentury, most larger Bay steamers were exceeding 9-12 foot draft, 25-36 foot beam (width) with lengths from 160-260 feet. The steamers built to fit the locks were necessarily small, and with their high superstructure and narrow beam, were not as stable in a seaway as vessels designed for open water routes. The canal began to fall short of its potential for commerce.
In 1899 and again through the early 1900s, two brothers, Robert and George Barrie, repeatedly cruised the canal on on a recreational basis, on their way to and from the Bay. Their tales, published first in British boating magazines and later in a book, “CRUISES: Mainly in the Bay of the Chesapeake,”published in 1909, describe a more leisurely time in the Chesapeake and the canal. They tell about tailing on with their engine-less sailboats behind a cooperative tugboat or waiting at the locks for a schooner to catch up.
This leisurely pace changed when World War I broke out in 1914, and German submarines threatened U.S. coastal shipping. The C&D canal offered safe passage between Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Norfolk and shortened the exposure to danger during passages southbound from New York or northbound from Charleston.
This lesson of national interest was well learned, and the canal’s physical plant, plus all of the outstanding stock shares were purchased by the U.S. government in 1919.
The constraints of increasing size and draft remained, though, and the economic virtues of a sea level canal became both attractive, and more feasible with steam shovels, power dredges and taxpayer support.
The locks were eliminated beginning in 1921. The canal was excavated to sea level by 1924, but the pumping station was not taken out of service until 1927. The canal was formally opened to navigation on Oct. 17, 1929, when it was just 100 years old.
When completed, it offered straight access to the canal’s Delaware River end at Reedy Point, with a channel 14 miles long and 10 feet deep for a bottom width of 36 feet.
Tolls were ended, and traffic in the canal increased greatly within a few years (See chart on page 9.), including the years of the Great Depression.
When the canal and its locks were first opened in 1829, their impact on the Bay and its ecology was very small.
The Elk River, which connects to the canal, is a part of the Bay’s network of streams that annually receive massive migrations of anadromous fishes — those which return to their natal freshwater streams to reproduce. This phenomenon was a major element in the Chesapeake’s water-based economy for almost 200 years.
Only a few small streams had these migrations impaired as a result of the C&D canal. For instance, in 1897, the steam pump intake boxes located at river level below the locks became clogged with thousands of migrating herrings. Boys dipped them out with nets, to prevent their getting taken up in the water wheel.
Vessels transiting from one bay to the other were bathed during their journey in the fresh water of Delaware and Maryland streams, which partially or completely killed saltwater organisms fouling their bottoms. The freshwater released from each filling of the locks delayed only slightly, natural streamflow that would have reached the estuary anyway. Some organisms may have been carried across the isthmus in bilge water, but no more than if the same ships had entered or left through the capes.
But, once the canal was opened at sea level, a constant and running tidal connection was established between the two estuaries. Pulses of flow and their living contents, including fish larvae, were bled off from the Susquehanna end of Chesapeake Bay, which accepted a smaller portion of flow from the Delaware River into the lower Elk.
The larger and deeper the C & D Canal became, the greater the potential significance of these exchanges. The first such expansion in 1938 deepened the canal to 27 feet across with a bottom width of 250 feet. It cost a then-significant $14.7 million. At this point in time, though, people weren’t worrying about fish larvae. World War II, with its threat of German submarines gave the canal critical national significance.
When it was over, the postwar economic recovery outweighed concerns for the environment, and by 1950, vessel transits were exceeding 5,000 annually and peaked in 1953 at about 9,500.
In 1954, a long-term project for deepening the canal to 35 feet, widening the bottom width to 450 feet and building one rail and two highway bridges was approved.
Deep draft traffic was projected to increase about 2 percent annually to 8,375 transits per year by 1995 to justify the investment, with a break-even traffic level of about 6,900 transits annually. Instead, the level of usage by deep draft vessels has declined.
By the time that the 1975 canal expansion took place, public awareness was focused on the Bay’s plummeting natural resources, including a number of commercially important species that spawn and spend their early life stages in the upper Chesapeake and Delaware River.
Again, studies began to evaluate the loss of upper Bay fishery resources potentially bled off by the ever-larger canal.
It’s hard to study a system after changes have been made, but it was clear that the losses and exchanges were taking place on a fairly large — though unpredictable — scale. It became an exercise of balancing potential environmental losses versus real and predicted economic gains.
Meanwhile, the strategy for handling and transporting marine cargoes is changing across the globe. Transport by water is more economical than by rail, although they serve different markets. Ship sizes for everything from dry bulk cargo, to passengers, to oil are increasing.
By the mid-1980s, there was talk of widening the canal yet again. The vessels of major shipping companies were increasing in length from 360 to 690 feet, with drafts of 31-35 feet. Tonnages ranged from 17,000 to 26,000.
Canal traffic today is limited so that when the combined width of two vessels exceeds 190 feet, they cannot pass each other in the canal. One must wait its turn in the river or Bay.
Large, ocean-going vessels, like the supertanker Globtik Tokyo, with a dead weight of 483,664 tons, a length of 1,246 feet, a beam of 204 feet and a maximum draft of 92 feet are denied access to the canal.
Almost from the beginning, the canal was in competition with railroads, which developed along with steam engine technology. While they competed head-to-head for many years, the speed and versatility of rails eventually eliminated most canals nationwide. But the C & D Canal had the advantage of connecting major East Coast ports at New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore, where it is an advantage for partially loaded ships to pick up and discharge fractional cargoes.
To help increase commerce, the Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland’s Port Administration, proposed to deepen the canal in the mid to late 1990s, on the premise that ships were increasing in draft and “if we build the canal, they will come.” Many Baltimore economic interests applauded the decision as one way to rejuvenate flagging commerce.
Citizens and environmental groups, though, were concerned about the ecological impacts of the vast amounts of sediment dredging required for both canal and approach channels; where these materials would be deposited; and how the large amounts of the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus, found in these sediments, could be controlled.
Others joined the fray, citing the downward trend in vessel passages through the canal — now averaging about 8,000 total transits a year, according to canal management — as evidence that the high cost of deepening it was unwarranted.
Fishery biologists, confirming what was learned in the 1970s study, say that as the canal’s size, and thus flow, are increased, the probability of cumulative damage to Bay fisheries also rises. These are incremental effects that are hard to detect with conventional monitoring, and are affected by such factors as weather and harvest levels.
Years of controversy resulted in a study of canal economics being withdrawn and, most recently, the entire proposal for canal deepening being shelved.
It’s likely that proposals to do more work on the C&D Canal will resurface, when national interest, changes in the economy or innovative technology come to the fore.
A portion of the once-vast of Bohemia Manor, where Augustine Herrman lived in the 1600s, still commands a dramatic view of the river. His dream has been more than amply fulfilled, whatever the canal’s present complexities.
The author would like to thank retired Army Corps of Engineers canal historian John Trush for references and enlightening discussion. He would also like to acknowledge the assistance of resident engineer Jim Tomlin and his staff at the Corps as well as Dr. John Williams, who provided the canal traffic figures drawn from Corps data.