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Canals – A Tool for Economic Growth in the Early Republic

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

As mentioned in our earlier post on the Conestoga Wagon, beginning with the expansion of the British colonies from the coast of North America into the interior, transportation between the coastal ports and the backcountry became an issue. After its victory in the Revolutionary War, the fledgling United States gained control over an area stretching along the Atlantic seaboard from New Hampshire to Georgia, and as far inland as the Mississippi River. Encompassing an area exceeding that of any western European nation of the time, the transportation of raw materials out of the backcountry and of finished goods to the settlers of these new territories presented unprecedented logistical problems.

Although the coastal trade routes were well developed, the nation had limited transportation and communication lines with its interior, its options limited to a few advantageously located interior river systems and their interconnecting portages. Initially, supplemented by the teamsters with their Conestoga Wagons, rivers often afforded adequate transportation routes however, the Appalachian Mountains, running north/south for over 1,500 miles with just five places where mule trains or wagon roads could easily cross, presented a major challenge. Inspired by the English and Dutch systems of canals, Americans began to eye the possibility of man-made waterways early in their history.

Late 17th Century Dutch Artwork showing Dutch Canals Used for Transportation
Late 17th Century Dutch Artwork showing Dutch Canals

Much of the difficulty in early canal building was simply a lack of basic knowledge. Americans had no experience engineering such improvements and so, engineers were either sent to England for training or foreign engineers brought here. More often, they had to work out for themselves how to take a level, dig a channel, remove tree roots, dispose of tons of earth, mix underwater cement, create locks and a hundred other things. The fact that American engineers, surveyors, and laborers were able to build a system of canals from this beginning was put forward as proof that America was an inspired nation whose ingenuity would carry it far. Let’s look at the history of this early “growing period” of

American canal engineering.

Canals in the Chesapeake Bay Region

In 1791, the Pennsylvania legislature chartered a private group of leading citizens to begin work on the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal, planned to connect the Schuylkill and Susquehanna rivers, and allow water transportation between Philadelphia and Reading, PA. At the request of the company, an English engineer, William Weston, came to America to supervise construction. As with many early canals, they completed work in sections and, due to financial and engineering difficulties, was not completed until 1828 (under the name of the Union Canal).

Lock 60, Schuylkill Canal
Lock 60, Schuylkill Canal

Similarly, building began on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, intended to connect the two bays, in 1803; work continued until 1806 when the funds were exhausted. The canal company reorganized in 1822, and new surveys determined that the project would need more than $2 million in capital to complete construction. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania bought $100,000 in stock, the State of Maryland, $50,000, Delaware, $25,000, the federal government invested $450,000, with the rest subscribed by the public.

1803 Section of the northern course of the C&D canal from the tide in the Elk River at Frenchtown to the forked oak in Mr. Rudulph's swamp
1803 Section of the northern course of the C&D canal

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supplied two senior officers to the canal company in 1823 and 1824 to help determine a canal route. The officers and two civilian engineers recommended a new route with four locks, extending from what is now Delaware City, westward to the Back Creek branch of the Elk River in Maryland. Canal construction resumed in April 1824, and within several years 2,600 men were digging and hauling dirt from the ditch at an average daily wage of 75 cents. The swampy marshlands along the canal's planned route proved a great obstacle to progress; workers continuously battled slides along the "ditch's" soft slopes. It was 1829 before the C&D Canal Company could, at last, announce the waterway "open for business". Its construction cost of $3.5 million made it one of the most expensive canal projects of its time.

Eastern Lock of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, Battery Park, DE
Eastern Lock of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal

Of all the canals projected for construction, only three were complete when the War of 1812 broke out: The Dismal Swamp Canal in Virginia, The Santee Canal in South Carolina, and The Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts.

Dismal Swamp Canal

In the Colonial period, water transportation was the lifeblood of the North Carolina sounds and the Tidewater areas of Virginia. The economy of the “sounds region” was dependent upon poor overland tracks or shipment along the treacherous Carolina coast to Norfolk, Virginia to reach more distant markets. In May 1763, George Washington made his first visit to the Great Dismal Swamp. After appraising the area, he suggested draining it and digging a north-south canal through it to connect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Later, as the first president, Washington agreed with Virginia Governor Patrick Henry that canals were the easiest answer for an efficient means of internal transportation and urged their creation and improvement.

Request For Proposals, Dismal Swamp Canal, 1792
Request For Proposals, Dismal Swamp Canal, 1792

In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the Dismal Swamp Canal Company with Robert Andrews, Thomas Newton, Jr., John Cowper, Daniel Berdinger, and Donald Campbell as Directors. Construction began in 1793, with most of the labor for the hand-dug canal done by slaves hired from nearby landowners. The canal, constructed from both ends, met in the middle. When completed in 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal connected Deep Creek, VA, and South Mills, NC, and created a waterway between the Elizabeth and Pasquotank Rivers connecting the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. It took 12 years under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which opened in 1805. The construction of a large dry dock by the United States government at the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia near entrance to the Dismal Swamp Canal, helped the canal due to the proximity of shipbuilding materials from Dismal Swamp. By 1829, after deepening the channel, the Dismal Swamp Canal was fully operational for sustained commercial traffic.

Dismal Swamp Canal and Hotel Shortly After Opening
Dismal Swamp Canal and Hotel Shortly After Opening

At about the time the canal opened, the Dismal Swamp Hotel opened astride the state line on the west bank. It was a popular spot for lover's trysts as well as duels; since the dead man, as well as the crime, were in another state, arrest of the winner rarely occurred. Gamblers also frequented the hotel since, as the state line split the main salon, they could easily move the game to the opposite side of the room with the arrival of the sheriff from one jurisdiction or another. No trace of the hotel remains today.

Santee Canal

In 1770, the South Carolina House of Commons proposed a survey to determine the most favorable routes for a canal to connect the Santee River with the Cooper River. This canal, known as America's first "summit canal was constructed to provide a better means of transporting agricultural products from the center of the state to the port of Charleston. The Santee River and its tributaries drained much of the South Carolina uplands but its entrance to the sea, some fifty miles northwest of Charleston, was choked by a swampy delta and a shallow bay. From there boats had to sail to Charleston inside a broken string of barrier islands, risking shallow water and ocean rip currents.

A Section of the Silted-in Santee Canal Today
A Section of the Silted-in Santee Canal Today

In 1773, the South Carolina Assembly commissioned Henry Mouzon, Jr. to survey routes for this effort however, the onset of the U.S. Revolution delayed further action on the canal until 1785. In 1786, the South Carolina General Assembly chartered a company to “construct and maintain” the inland canal linking the Cooper River near Charleston, with the Santee River. Construction began in 1793 under the supervision of Johann Christian Senf, a Swedish-born engineer who had served with Hessian troops during the Revolution, and at this time the State Engineer. More than seven hundred laborers, mostly slaves, worked with picks and shovels for seven years to finish the Santee Canal.

The canal’s design included a 34-foot rise through three lifting locks and a 69-foot fall through seven more lifting locks - a net difference of 35 feet between the two rivers. Because of porous, sandy soil, the builders lined parts of the upper section of the canal with planks. At completion, it was 22 miles long, had two double locks and eight single locks, its width was 35 feet at the water's surface and 20 feet at the bottom and its depth was 4 feet.

Drawing of Excavated Lock on Santee Canal
Drawing of Excavated Lock on Santee Canal

At the beginning of construction in 1793, the estimated cost of construction was £55,000 sterling. At completion in 1800, audits determined that the actual cost was over $800,000. All funds were from private subscription - there was no help from the state.

When it opened in 1800, the first boat to traverse the new canal in June 1800 carried a cargo of salt from Charleston up the Cooper River, the canal, the Santee River, then the Congaree River - some two hundred (200) miles up to Columbia. Initially, mules and horses pulled boats and barges along the canal using ten-foot wide tow paths. Later, the use of horses and mules was abandoned, and crewmen with poles pushed the boats through the canal.

Archeologists Working on A Section of the Santee Canal
Archeologists Working on A Section of the Santee Canal

Although it opened the interior of South Carolina to water transportation for the first time, the Santee Canal never consistently made money. As previously referenced, construction was more costly than predicted. For sixteen years, the canal operations were smooth, and traffic built. Goods moved freely to Charleston and the Santee Canal began to show a profit. From 1817 to 1819, however, severe droughts dried up the canal, stopping all traffic for two years. The canal’s busiest year was 1830, when a total of seven hundred and twenty (720) boats and barges, mostly full of cotton (about 70,000 bales), traveled through the waterway.

In the long term, the same cotton that provided much of the traffic in 1830, along with the coming of railroads, caused the eventual downfall and ruin of the canal. The dominance of the cotton industry in the uplands, in lieu of cereal crops, soon ended all shipment of grains to the coast. Cotton, far lighter in weight and more valuable, could better bear the cost of transportation by land, especially since transport on the rivers subjected cargos to frequent mishaps, low water, and delays. In the 1840s, railroads began to compete for the uplands traffic and the Santee Canal was finally abandoned in 1858.

The Middlesex Canal

The Middlesex Canal was one of the first civil engineering projects of its type in the United States and studied by engineers working on other major canal projects such as the Erie Canal. Several innovations made the canal possible, including hydraulic cement, used to mortar its locks, and an ingenious floating towpath to span the Concord River.

In Massachusetts, there were several proposals for bringing goods to the principal port, Boston, and connecting to the interior. For about three years various luminaries focused on plans to connect the upper reaches of the Connecticut River, above the falls at Enfield, to Boston through a canal to the Charles. The Connecticut, believed to rise at similar elevations to the Merrimack River's, could be reached by a string of streams, ponds, lakes, and man made canals—if the canals were built. Rough surveys sought the best route up to the Connecticut Valley; but no route was obviously best, and nobody championed a specific one. After the collapse of stocks in early 1793 put an end to the plan to join the Charles River with the Connecticut, a group of leading Massachusetts businessmen and politicians led by States Attorney General James Sullivan proposed a connection from the Merrimack River to Boston Harbor. This proposal became the Middlesex (County) Canal system. The Middlesex Canal Corporation was chartered on June 22, 1793, with a signature by Governor John Hancock. Eight hundred shares, at a cost of two dollars a share, were quickly purchased by Bostonians and other local capitalists such as John Hancock, John Derby, Aaron Dexter, James Sullivan, Joseph Barrell, Christopher Gore, Andrew Craigie, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Storer.

Map of the Route of the Middlesex Canal
Map of the Route of the Middlesex Canal

The route of the canal, surveyed in August 1793, was sufficiently uncertain that the company made a second survey in October. Due to discrepancies in the results of this second survey, a representative was authorized by the proprietors to travel to Philadelphia in an effort to secure the services of William Weston, a British engineer working on several canal and turnpike projects in Pennsylvania under contract to the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company. Baldwin's application to the Navigation company was successful, and they authorized Weston to travel to Massachusetts. In July and August 1794, Weston, surveyed and laid out two routes for the proposed canal. The proprietors then secured contracts to buy the land for the canal, some of which was donated by its owners; while in sixteen cases the proprietors used eminent domain proceedings to take land.

The basic plan was for the canal's principal water source to be the Concord River at its highest point in North Billerica, with more water drawn as needed from Horn Pond in Woburn. The site where the canal met the Concord River, which the proprietors bought along with its water rights, had been the site of a grist mill since the 17th century. From this point the canal descended six miles to the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford (now western Lowell) and 22 miles to the Charles River in Charlestown.

A Section of the Middlesex Canal in Modern Times

In late September 1794 work on the canal began in North Billerica. Several contractors performed work on the canal. In some instances, the company contracted local workers to dig sections, while in other areas they brought in contract labor from other areas of Massachusetts and New Hampshire for the construction work. A form of hydraulic cement (made in part from volcanic materials imported at great expense from Sint Eustatius in the West Indies) was used to make the stone locks watertight. Because of its cost and the cost of working in stone, they used wood for several of the locks instead of stone. An innovation in earth-moving equipment resulted in the development of a precursor of the dump truck, with one side of the carrier hinged to allow the rapid dumping of material at the desired location.

Water was diverted into the canal in December 1800, and by 1803 the canal was filled to Charlestown. The first boat ran on part of the canal in April 22, 1802. When completed, the Middlesex Canal was a 27-mile barge canal connecting the Merrimack River with the port of Boston. It was 30 feet wide, and 3½ feet deep, with 20 locks, each 80 feet long and between 10 and 11 feet wide. It also had eight aqueducts. One side was a towpath for the horse that would pull the barge along the canal.

Aqueduct Crossing the Shawsheen River
Aqueduct Crossing the Shawsheen River

The canal was the wonder of its day. It was faster, cheaper, and bigger than any competition. It could carry a large boat of goods down from Lowell in 12 hours, and 18 hours from Boston to Lowell. The alternative route down the Merrimack River and then to Boston would take four days.

Mainly because of the history of missed building schedules and financial problems, there were many naysayers who saw canals as a waste of money and effort. It was not until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 that canal builders were vindicated. As the model for most later canals, the Erie ushered in the canal era with great fanfare, proving to an excited nation that the American economy and spirit could indeed benefit from a system of inland waterways.

The Erie Canal

The canal, first proposed in the 1780s, was re-proposed in 1807. The canal was to create a navigable water route from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Prior to the building of this waterway, there were only 5 places in the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains where mule trains or wagon roads were easily routed. In a time when bulk goods were limited to pack animals and wagons, water was the most cost-effective way to ship bulk goods. It was faster than carts pulled by draft animals and cut transport costs by as much as 95%.

Route of the Erie Canal, ca. 1840

A survey of a route was authorized, funded, and executed in 1808. The War of 1812 put a hold on moving forward with the canal but also had the effect of spurring on the construction of the project. During the war, the limitations of the transportation system became evident to lawmakers which, in turn helped to build support for the canal. Although proposed to promote commercial links, many came to perceive it as having military uses should the need ever arise in the future. After the War of 1812, support continued to build and with the support of New York by Governor De Witt Clinton of New York, in 1817 the New York Legislature authorized construction of the Erie Canal as the first canal project undertaken as a project for the public good and financed through the issuance of government guaranteed bonds.

The problem was that the land rises about 600 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Locks at the time could only handle a maximum of 12 feet of lift, so even with the heftiest cuttings and viaducts, fifty locks would be needed along the 360-mile canal. Such a canal would be expensive to build even with modern technology; in the 1800s, the expense was barely imaginable. President Thomas Jefferson called it "a little short of madness" and rejected it for any Federal assistance on the premise that building public works was not specifically outlined as a Federal power in the Constitution and all powers not specifically delegated to the Federal government were reserved for the States.

Lock on the Erie Canal
Lock on the Erie Canal

Construction of the canal, through limestone and mountains, proved a daunting task. In 1823 construction reached the Niagara Escarpment, causing the building of five locks along a 3-mile section to carry the canal over the escarpment. To move earth, animals pulled a "slip scraper" (like a bulldozer). The sides of the canal were lined with stone set in clay, and the bottom lined with clay. All labor on the canal depended upon human (and animal) power or the force of water. Engineering techniques developed during its construction included the building of aqueducts to redirect water. As the canal progressed, the crews and engineers working on the project developed expertise and became a skilled labor force.

Aqueduct for Erie Canal over the Genesee River
Aqueduct for Erie Canal over the Genesee River

When completed in 1825, the canal linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie via 83 separate locks over 363 miles. It began at Albany, on the Hudson River, and ended at Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie. The final cost of the canal was $7,143,000 (equivalent to $112,000,000 in 2018). The channel was cut 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, with removed soil piled on the downhill side to form a walkway known as a towpath.

Travel on the Erie Canal

Pulled by horses and mules walking on the towpath, Canal boats, up to three and a half feet in draft, carried freight. The canal had one towpath. When canal boats met, the boat with the right of way remained on the towpath side of the canal. The other boat steered toward the berm side of the canal. The driver of the privileged boat kept his towpath team by the canal side edge of the towpath, while the driver of the other boat moved to the outside of the towpath and stopped his team, unhitched his towline from the horses, and allowed it to go slack and fall into the water, sinking to the bottom. Meanwhile, his boat coasted with its remaining momentum. The privileged boat's team would step over the other boat's towline, with its horses pulling the boat over the sunken towline without stopping. Once clear, the other boat's team was hitched to its towline and continue along the canal. The canal boats moved slowly, but methodically, along the canal. The smooth, nonstop method of transportation cut the travel time between Albany and Buffalo in half, moving day and night.

Freight Boats on the Erie Canal

Settlers, moving to the west, took passage on freight boats, camping on deck or on top of crates. Packet boats, serving passengers exclusively, reached speeds of up to five miles an hour. Measuring up to 78 feet long and 14.5 feet wide, they made ingenious use of space, accommodating up to 40 passengers at night and up to three times as many in the daytime. The best examples, equipped with carpeted floors, stuffed chairs, and mahogany tables stocked with books and current newspapers, served as sitting rooms during the days. At mealtimes, crews transformed the cabin into a dining room. At night, curtains, drawn across the width of the room, divided the cabin into ladies' and gentlemen's sleeping quarters. Pull-down tiered beds folded from the walls, and more cots could be hung from hooks in the ceiling. Some captains even hired musicians and held dances.

Packet Boat on the Erie Canal

The canal supplied impressive revenue for the state of New York. Turning a profit in its first year, the canal steadily made money until the ending of tolls in 1883. Also unique to the Erie Canal was the fact that it survived the rise of the railroad. The tonnage on the canal continued to increase well past the time of the Civil War, finally peaking in 1872.

The success of the Erie Canal spawned a boom of canal building around the country. Private companies and governments constructed over 3,326 miles of man-made waterways between 1816 and 1840. Small towns like Syracuse, New York, Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, situated along major canal routes, boomed into major industrial and trade centers, while exuberant canal building pushed some states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to the brink of bankruptcy.

Canals and the Spirit of Reform

The spread of canals that spread through the new United States supplied the first easy travel possibility and helped to encourage the migration of people and ideas across the country. Reformers, who wished to see America flower as a pluralistic society watched the canals with interest and quickly adopted them as a vehicle for spreading their ideas. The canal boats carried itinerant ministers to remote communities on the canal circuit; Charles Finney, the great revivalist leader, went west to Rochester by packet boat. These evangelists sometimes used the canals themselves a convenient location for baptism by immersion.

Portrait of Charles G. Finney
Charles G. Finney

Using the canal system new reform movements spread throughout New York. The Shakers at Watervliet, the Perfectionists at Oneida Community, the Millerites and Fox sisters at Rochester, and the Mormons at Palmyra all found the newly available transportation method useful in finding recruits, sending out evangelists, and spreading their communities. The Millerites in particular, used the canal network in Ohio; William Miller spent the summer of 1844 preaching from canal boats moving through Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Education reformers also jumped at the chance to encourage learning via the canals. Amos Eaton, a professor at the Rensselaer School in Troy, New York, ran a traveling school of science on the Erie Canal in 1826. Following his efforts floating libraries, museums, bookstores, and waxworks began to ply the waters of the canals, bringing learning and culture to a new audience.

Portrait of Amos Eaton
Amos Eaton

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of canal travel was its egalitarian nature. Crowded together, new immigrants sat with New England orators; political debate was common and the exposure to the latest ideas clearly sat well with many travelers. "When Henry Clay came along on his way to Washington," wrote a passenger on the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, "what a chance for the village orator to speak at him and all of us to hear him in response as we sailed from one set of locks to the next!"

Reformers also focused on controlling the evils spread by the canal and its negative effects. Asiatic cholera, always a danger, was carried easily along the canal lines. Cholera attacked poorer and primarily Irish communities, allowing reformers to suppose that it was "primarily a moral dilemma." Thus, attention began to focus on conditions of labor for the boatmen, temperance issues, and an overall desire to preserve what they considered American “virtue and morality” among canal workers and travelers.

We hope you found this post on the Canals of the Early American Republic informative and interesting. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (button in the upper right corner of this page) and let us know by posting a comment. We also hope you will take the time to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.


Forrest, W. S. (1858). Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston.

Hopkins, A. T. (1898, January). The Old Middlesex Canal. The New England Magazine, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp. 519-532.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. (2019, July 25). Dismal Swamp Canal Company Records, Manuscript MS 76.3. Williamsburg, VA, USA.

Parramore, T. C. (2000). Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Porcher, F. A. (1875). The History of the Santee Canal. Charleston: The South Carolina Historical Society.

Schaefer, M. (2016). Dismal Swamp Canal. Retrieved from North Carolina History Project:

Shaw, R. E. (1990). Canals for a Nation, The Canal Era in the United States 1790 - 1860. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.


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