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American Canals

Canals are of two classes, those admitting large ships and those admitting small craft; the former are technically known as ship canals, the latter, barge canals. It is, of course, the barge canal, in its relation to the western movement of the American people, which should be considered in any study of the subject.

In colonial America, there were few roads, and these were bad, and in early spring and rainy weather could not be used. Logs, placed across the road in low and marshy places, formed a rough and bumpy highway called a corduroy road. Plank roads were the best that existed. It was much pleasanter to travel by water and to carry goods that way. Few people lived west of the Genesee Valley, not because there was any lack of people anxious to live there, but because there was no way to bring their products to a market without heavy expense and great risk.

In order to open the western country to settlers, and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry their produce to a market, improvements in the natural waterways were made.

The subject of fast and safe transportation of freight had become so commonplace the day of railways that it is difficult to catch any true idea of the economic importance of the invention and general use of such an ordinary thing as a good wagon. The meaning of the successful opening of a great canal, such as the Erie Canal, can hardly be understood unless one has known nothing of the problem of transportation save as represented by the pack-saddle and "Conestoga" wagon.

It was natural that an echo of the awakening of internal improvements in England should have been heard in her American colonies where such a vast field for such enterprise lay awaiting a similar awakening. It is believed that as early as 1750 a canal or sluice was dug in Orange County, New York, by Lieutenant-governor Colder for the transportation of stone.

Within half a century, and less, after canal building was common in England it became common in young America. The Americans were comparatively quick to make the most of opportunities in this as in every branch of invention and promotion which helped toward annihilating distances. The great extent of American territory in itself was an inducement to this end. The colonial roads were often impassable in the winter season and wretched in any wet weather; the main line of communication was the Atlantic Coast, never easily navigated and, for a large part of the year, extremely dangerous in these early days before the invention of the blessings of coast surveys, lighthouses, and lightships.

As a consequence, it was natural that the idea gained ground rapidly that if the splendid rivers which are scattered in profusion up and down the seaboard could be connected by canals a new era would dawn in our coastwise trade, which was, in fact, almost the only trade. Thus it came about that hosts of schemes were proposed for connecting Atlantic rivers and bays.

In many cases the rivers were easily navigated for long distances into the interior; but these distances varied in different seasons of the year, and when, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century the western movement became prominent, and the rivers were ascended further than before, the question of the navigation of unnavigable waters came quickly to the fore.

Unfortunately for their pocketbooks, the Americans did not agree with the Spanish idea that improving unnavigable rivers was a wilful attempt "to mend the imperfections of providence." The story of the sorry attempts to make such rivers as the Mohawk and upper Potomac navigable proves that the Spanish decree was somehow in the right, whether the Spanish reasoning was correct or not.

The Revolutionary War put an end to many plans for improvements. Immediately after the close of the war, however, the various projects were again advanced here and there as the young republic began to grasp the great opportunities that lay before it. Among the most important early undertakings were those which looked forward to a new West and the need of lines of communication in advance of the rough roads which were the only avenues of commerce.

The scheme of improving the rivers which rose in the Alleghenies, and connecting their heads with the waterways which flowed into the Ohio River at Lake Erie, was one of the moving projects of the hour. The improvement of the James, Potomac, and Mohawk Rivers for this purpose commanded the attention of the nation at the time; these projects were the first steps toward building the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Erie canals.

The first canal locks were constructed in 1796 at Little Falls by a private company acting under a charter from the State. These made people eager for Governor DeWitt Clinton's plan for the State-owned Erie canal. This canal, begun in 1817, was laughed at by many who called it "Clinton's Big Ditch." Governor Clinton, however, forseeing its great use to the State, called it "The Grand Canal." The route of this waterway had been gone over and approved by President Washington, himself an engineer and surveyor.

The second canal survey in the American colonies was of a route between Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River in 1764. A new survey was made of this proposed canal in 1769, under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society; it was not, however, until 1804 that work was commenced on this canal the Chesapeake and Delaware, as it was known and this was soon suspended. The route was resurveyed in 1822 and completed, thirteen and one-half miles long, in 1829.

It is interesting to note that the subject of canals was being widely mooted in America at a time far remote from the day when they came actually into existence. England waited a century after the celebrated Languedoc Canal in France proved what vast good this form of internal improvement could bring, before she took up the canal problem in earnest.

The Erie canal was opened October 25, 1825. It was 4 feet deep and about 42 feet wide and could float a boat carrying 30 tons of freight. The first boat to travel its full length was the Seneca Chief; its start from Buffalo was announced by the booming of a line of cannon all the way across the State to Albany and down the Hudson to New York City. The Seneca Chief carried two barrels of water from Lake Erie, which Governor Clinton emptied into the ocean at New York, the first "Marriage of Waters" between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Erie proved to be the world's greatest canal.

The earliest planned lock canal in the provinces was the Schuylkill and Susquehanna, surveyed from the Schuylkill River near Reading, Pennsylvania, to Middletown on the Susquehanna in 1762. Work on this canal was not begun until 1791, but only four miles were opened by 1794, when the work again paused. Not until 1821 was it resumed, and the canal was completed in 1827 under the name of the Union Canal. It became a division of the later Pennsylvania Canal.

Its effect was soon felt, not only through the State but throughout the east and the Great Lakes region. Settlers flocked westward, forests gave way to sawmills and villages replaced these. Prosperous towns were established on the Great Lakes and the splendid chain of cities, which has won for New York the title of Empire State, sprang up along the line of the Erie canal.

The shipping which once went to Philadelphia, the nation's biggsst seaport before the Erie canal, came to New York; the city grew by leaps and bounds and became the commercial center of the American Union. Sixteen years after the opening of the canal, the exports of New York were valued at three times those of Massachusetts, the value of real estate had increased more rapidly than the population, while personal property was nearly four times its former value, and manufacturing three times as great. There were five times as many people following commercial pursuits in New York as there were before the completion of the Erie canal.

The mania for improving the minor waterways was a task in which so many millions of dollars were wasted. In this new and rapidly-developing country in those pre-railroad days the importance of canals in the transportation world can hardly be appreciated at the present time. Canals were projected all over the country, and many were built. The attention and labors of the ablest men of the period were devoted to canal schemes, their financing, locating, and building.

A good many of the canals that were built soon succumbed to new conditions and been discontinued, being unable to stand the competition of railroads. Some, however, have stood the test of time, and have remained important factors in the commercial world to the present day. Without question the most important of these early artificial waterways was the Erie Canal through the State of New York, connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie. This canal, although originally built of small size, played a very important part in the settlement of the great West, or what was then the great West, by furnishing a route in connection with the Great Lakes by which the products of the new Western country could reach the markets along the seaboard, and by which in turn it could get its supplies of clothing, tools, groceries, &c., at an economical rate for transportation.

Many other canals were built after people saw the success of the Erie, and for many years canals formed the principal trade routes in the State. However, the invention of the steam engine and the building of railroads struck them a severe blow. Some of them failed and were closed; the Chenango canal, connecting Utica and Binghamton, is an example of an abandoned canal.

By the late 19th century the great majority of the canals were abandoned as they lost their commercial utility. Many had limited draft, had high upkeep and were no longer able to compete effectively with railways. Those that are left today, such as the Erie Canal, the Rideau Canal and the Champlain Canal, are used for recreational purposes and managed by state or federal governments as parks. Portions of some other canals have been restored for recreational purposes. The only commercial exceptions are the Welland Canal, upgraded several times, which is now part of the St. Lawrence Seaway that was completed in 1959, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal that links Chicago to the Illinois River and which has been supplemented by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:10 ZULU