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Canals in American History

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The United States was full of waterways but lacking in a coordinated network to join them. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other luminaries encouraged the construction of waterways to join the waypoints of the expanding country, joining the rivers to the rivers and to the lakes. Building on small canals began as early as the 1790s.

American engineers travelled to Europe to survey the canals there, mainly in England and in the Netherlands, and to consult with European engineers, some of whom came to America to advise on construction there. As a result, by the turn of the 19th Century, canals connected the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay and provided traders and settlers with a faster method of getting people and goods to the burgeoning Ohio Valley.

Despite the approval of famous people, canal funding was wanting in many parts of the country, mainly because building a canal was more expensive and time-consuming than building a road. A project to make the Potomac River dragged on for years. Other waterways were too shallow to accommodate boats laden with goods, so dams were needed to augment existing water levels. Some canals provided ships with an alternative to going over a river's rapids. Canal-builders used hydraulic cement, which hardens underwater, to provide a solid structure for canals and for locks, which would elevate or lower boats to compensate for different water levels in the length of a waterway.

New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton was committed to building a canal across his state, to connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. The result was the Erie Canal, which was originally dismissed as "Clinton's Folly" but proved so successful at getting goods from the Midwest to the port of New York and over to Europe that New York City became the undisputed major port of the country. (Indeed, the Canal, in the years of its inception, between 1825 and 1882, returned $121 million on the initial investment of $7 million.)

The success of the Erie Canal spurred a canal-building boom. By 1840, engineers and workers had built more than 3,000 miles of canals across the existing country, and goods could be shipped from New York City to New Orleans and back again without ever having to go overland. The result was a business boom for Great Lakes port cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati and, of course, New Orleans, chief landing point in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.

With the rise of the canal came the popularity of the steamboat. American inventors like Robert Fulton pioneered the use of these boats up and down the Hudson River and on other rivers across the country.

Trade between the various parts of the country increased in great numbers, as did international trade. Canal transportation enabled merchants to get their goods to market much more quickly than by using overland travel.

Many canals were not as well strengthened as the popular Erie Canal or other, larger canals, and were, in fact, not much improved on their natural state. As a result, transportation on these more fragile canals was a little different. Larger amounts of goods were still carried on freight boats, but the power came from the land, in the form of people and animals pulling the boats along by towpaths, or towlines. Mules proved adept at this and needed less food than horses; even though mules took slightly longer to travel, they were more sure of foot and could go for longer before needing to stop or to be replaced.

For smaller amounts of goods, packet boats proved a popular choice. Pulled by horses, mainly, these faster but smaller boats provided a faster alternative to freight boats.

An entire industry grew up around the shipping of goods by canal. Captains made their living shipping goods back and forth between cities and ports. In between journeys, captains and boat workers lived in communities along canals.

Larger boats on longer journeys sported living quarters in the form of cabins, with bunks and tables and even small stoves for heating and cooking. Dock hands found increased business far from seawater ports. In the more fragile canals, boys and girls, some as young as 7, made money pulling towlines along.

An incomplete list of the canals built during this period includes the following:

  • Alexandria Canal
  • Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
  • Conestoga Navigation
  • Cumberland and Oxford Canal
  • Delaware and Hudson Canal
  • Delaware and Raritan Canal
  • Fox-Wisconsin Waterway
  • Franklin Line
  • Fredericksburg Canal
  • Hocking Canal
  • Illinois and Michigan Canal
  • James River Canal
  • Lehigh Canal
  • Main Line (Pennsylvania) Canal
  • Miami and Erie Canal
  • Morris Canal
  • Ohio and Erie Canal
  • Pawtucket Canal
  • Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal
  • Santee Canal
  • Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal
  • Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal
  • Union Canal
  • Wabash and Erie Canal
  • Whitewater Canal.

As with the Trails West, canals proved a slower alternative to railroad transportation. With the advent of locomotives and railroad cars, Americans turns in huge numbers to traveling by tracks, not by water. Canals continued to be used but, increasingly, as feeders to rail lines. Most of the canals built are no longer used for their original purpose. Some no longer exist at all.

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