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Monday, April 24, 2006

A Brief History of the Kanawha Canal Project

Image: by D L Ennis, Battery Creek Lock on the Kanawha Canal near the James River Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The James River and Kanawha Canal project was first proposed by George Washington when he was a young man surveying the mountains of western Virginia. He was searching for a way to open a water route to the West, and thought his proposed canal would be the key to helping Virginia to become an economic powerhouse in what would eventually become the United States.

Washington had identified the Potomac and James rivers as the most promising locations for canals to be built to connect with the western rivers by 1772. His preference was the James, as the Potomac led to rivers in land disputed with Pennsylvania and would be equally helpful to Maryland, whereas a canal along the James could be aligned with the Kanawha River (in what is now West Virginia), and would best serve only Virginia, which was his priority. In 1785, the James River Company was formed, and George Washington made honorary president, to build locks around the falls at Richmond. By then, Washington was rather busy with the affairs of the new nation which would elect him as its first president in 1789.

In those days, waterways were the major highways of commerce. Early development of the colonies along the east coast tended to end at the head of navigation of the rivers. Such early communities in Virginia included what we now know as Alexandria on the Potomac River, Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River, Richmond on the James River and Petersburg on the Appomattox River.

Image: Batteaux, New York State Military Musuem

Due to the efforts of George Washington, Edmund Randolph, and John Marshall, the first commercial canal in the United States, stretching from Richmond to Westham and paralleling the James for seven miles opened in 1790. The canal expanded the existing bateaux transportation on the James River. Bateaux were flat-bottomed boats which were laden with tobacco hogsheads, drifted down the James River to Richmond and returned with French and English imports such as furniture, dishes, and clothing. The canal boats were packets, which drew more water than the smaller capacity bateaux. Mules and horses pulled the packet boats along the towpaths which ran beside the canal.

Locks were built as a necessity at points where the river had rapids, in all 90 lift locks raising water levels more than 700 feet would be incorperated into the canal system. However, the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 each slowed construction. Work was slow, expensive, and very labor intensive through the rocky terrain of Virginia's Piedmont region, which is a transitional area between the sandy coastal plain and the mountains. Much of the hardest work was done largely with slave labor, rented from plantation owners near the route of the canal. Work stalled for a number of years, and the James River Company went broke and gave up.

Image by D L Ennis, One of the lock gates at the Battery Creek Lock

In 1820, the Commonwealth of Virginia took control of the James River and Kanawha Canal and resumed construction only with the financial help of state funds through the Virginia Board of Public Works. Work stalled yet again, and in 1835, construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal resumed under the new James River and Kanawha Company, with Judge Benjamin Wright as Chief Engineer. He was assisted by his son, Simon Wright, and Charles Ellet Jr., and Daniel Livermore. By 1840, the canal was completed to present-day Lynchburg.
Eventually, the canal was extended 196.5 miles west of Richmond to Buchanan by 1851. From there, it was planned to linked with the James River and Kanawha Turnpike to provide passage through the most rugged portions of the mountains to reach the Kanawha at its head of navigation about 30 miles east of today's Charleston, West Virginia.

The portage necessary made competition with the railroads a real threat, but construction of a planned railroad across the portage route was delayed by the American Civil War (1861-1865). However, with the damage done to the canal system and increasing funtionality and spread of the railroad, rendered the canal obsolete shortly after the war had ended. By the time the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway was built through to the Ohio River in 1873, the doom of the canal was clear and it was sold to the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad company, which built tracks along the towpaths. That railroad was sold to the C&O, and today, the old canal route is followed by CSX trains loaded with coal from the mountains headed to port at Hampton Roads.

Image by D L Ennis, Looking through the Battery Creek Lock from upriver to the downriver entrance/exit

In the second half of the 20th century, portions of the old canal, locks, and turning basins became the source of renewed interest in Richmond and at other points along the line. As part of Richmond's revival and redevelopment of its waterfront, a portion of the canal was restored and now boat rides and a canal walk area are featured. Richmond's Canal Walk extends for a mile and a quarter parallel to the old Haxall and James River and Kanawha canals. Several historical exhibits about the canals themselves and the City of Richmond are dispersed throughout the length of the restored portion of the canal.

Much of the route of the connecting James River and Kanawha Turnpike portage through West Virginia is today the Midland Trail, a National Scenic Byway.

Near the James River visitor center, visitors can see one of the restored canal locks. The James River/Otter Creek recreation area is one of five developed areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, and is located near two highway crossings, state routes 501 and 130. Besides the visitor center, the area has a campground, restaurant/gift shop, picnic area, and handicap-accessible fishing dock.

An Interesting Side Note: In about 4,000 B. C. King Menes had the first, known, canal built in Upper Egypt.

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