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Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Still Moves the Goods

By Joe and Diane Devanney

Can you name the busiest canal in the United States? A hint: the canal also ranks as the third busiest in the world. Still baffled? It's the Chesapeake & Delaware (C&D) Canal, a 14-mile waterway that connects the Delaware River with the Chesapeake Bay and Port of Baltimore and handles more than 15,000 transits a year. Owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the C&D measures 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep. Although it has been in use for 175 years, its history traces back even further to the mid-1600s and is celebrated in the C&D Canal Museum in Chesapeake City, Maryland.

Augustine Hermann, a Dutch surveyor and mapmaker, first suggested the idea of the canal. He noticed that a narrow strip of land separated the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay and realized that if they were connected, ships sailing from Philadelphia to Baltimore could save 300 miles in travel. In the young colonies, little opportunity arose to put Hermann's idea into practice, and over a century passed before it was given serious attention. In the 1760s, surveys of water routes were conducted, and at the turn of the 19th Century, funding for the project finally materialized. Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware joined forces, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company was officially incorporated in 1802.

By 1804, construction on the canal had begun, but only two years later, lack of funding stopped work. Almost another two decades passed before the canal company reorganized. The three participating states again contributed varying amounts between $25,000 and $100,000 to the project with the federal government allocating nearly half a million toward the $2 million price tag.

Two officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with two civilian engineers, determined the exact canal route, and by April 1824, construction had begun anew. Nearly 3000 men were employed digging and hauling dirt to create the waterway, each earning 75 cents a day. Five years later, on October 17, 1829, the canal finally opened for business.

One of the most expensive canal projects of its time, the original channel measured 10 feet deep, 66 feet wide at the waterline, and 36 feet wide along the bottom. It featured two locks at Chesapeake City with another two at Delaware City and St. Georges, Delaware. Although most traffic using the canal hauled freight, at least one business carried passengers; the Ericsson Line began in 1844 and operated for about a century.

However, the canal was far from perfect. In one of the most serious problems, the locks lost water through leakage and evaporation. To rectify the situation, a steam engine and waterwheel -- also known as a liftwheel -- were installed in 1852 at the pumphouse to raise the water level of the canal, and a second steam engine followed in 1854.

As vessels increased in size throughout the 19th Century, they were no longer able to use the canal, and its traffic plummeted. In 1906, President Roosevelt appointed a commission to determine if the canal should be converted to a "free and open waterway." Thirteen years later, the federal government bought the canal for $2.5 million and named it the "Intracoastal Waterway - Delaware River to Chesapeake Bay, Delaware, and Maryland."

Several improvements were then undertaken, including deepening the canal to 12 feet and widening it to 90 feet. In May 1927, the canal reopened with grand celebrations. Within a decade, another $13 million was spent on more deepening and widening. However, shipbuilders continued constructing larger and larger vessels. In one twelve-year period, eight ships collided with bridges. To alleviate this problem, Congress authorized yet another round of canal expansion, and by the mid-1970s, improvements had been completed. Nearly half the ship traffic in and out of Baltimore now uses the canal.

Housed in the original pumphouse, the museum recently underwent a nearly-half-million-dollar renovation. It consists of one large gallery and several smaller rooms. The display at the entryway chronicles the history of Augustine Hermann and features his portrait. Another exhibit contains leaves from old law books published in 1829, the year the canal opened. Included among these are several old regulations regarding bridge traffic. Numerous models or replicas sit on view, including one of a barge that used mule power to pull it through the locks during the early days of the canal and another of a showboat that brought entertainment to various canal towns. Visitors can monitor actual canal traffic on the modern canal with a computer display that shows a vessel's name, estimated time of arrival, number of tours, speed, and beam (width of the vessel).

The steam engine room contains the 175-horsepower simple beam reciprocating condensing engine installed in 1852 to power the liftwheel. Merrick and Sons of Philadelphia built the engine, and amazingly, it broke down only once during its three generations of use. Make sure to look toward to the ceiling to see the mannequin of a worker in a walkway. Another room houses the liftwheel itself, which rotated at 1.5 rpm and raised 1,200,000 gallons of water an hour. It measures 38 feet in diameter and 10 feet in width. The final room of the museum contains the second engine installed in 1854 to operate in conjunction with the first, adding another 175 horsepower to the liftwheel.

When this two-engine system ceased operation on May 12, 1927, it marked the end of an era that began with nothing more than mules pulling on ropes. Today, the canal is run by advanced electronic systems and uses fiber optic and microwave links, as well as closed circuit television and radio systems, to help navigate commercial traffic through its waters.

For further information, call (410) 885-5621 or 885-5622 or visit the Chesapeake City Official Website at

A husband-and-wife travel writing team, Joe and Diane Devanney live in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer