Opening the Modern Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

After running the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal for nearly a century, the stockholders of the company handed it over to the United States Government in 1919, opening a new era for the manmade waterway.  It had been back in 1829 that laborers finished carving the route between the Delaware River and a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  After that, barges and vessels plied the passageway, conveying goods and doing business at Delaware City, St. Georges, and Chesapeake City.  Adding to the economy of the area, farmers brought produce for shipment to city markets to these places and stores provided merchandise.


A steamer passes through the Chesapeake City lock about 1910.

The manmade waterway, an engineering marvel across the top of the Peninsula, opened up this section for commerce and eased passage between two important regions of the nation.  In the early 19th century, long before anyone dreamed of an interstate highway system or knew anything about cars jamming up I-95 in the morning rush to Wilmington, conveying goods across Delmarva could be difficult.  So imagine how pleased townspeople, villagers, and farmers in the area must have been to have a canal opened right here, making transportation much easier.


Costly to build and to keep up, financial problems and changing times determined the long-term future of the route.  In the last decades of the 19th century, loss of trade to railroads resulted in declining traffic.  At the same time, national interests began a campaign to build a new channel, a larger and deeper one, capable of passing through bigger vessels.


Engineers surveyed seven other routes on Delmarva to accommodate this type of traffic.  As various pathways were considered, they were dropped because of costs, dangers of navigation, or defense considerations.  One possibility was to deepen and widen the existing C & D Canal, which was the option finally recommended by the Angus Commission.  Of course, that required the government’s acquisition of a private corporation.  Stockholders probably understood that enlarging the passageway was beyond the capability of the Company, so negotiations for the sale started.


Once terms were reached, the historic waterway became the property of the United States Government.  The date of the transaction was August 13, 1919.  After that, plans for conversion of the route to a sea level waterway were pushed forward.  As these plans evolved, many aspects of life in towns and villages along the waterway were changed forever.  Right away, the Army Corps of Engineers established its canal office in a two-story, white frame building in Chesapeake City.


Construction got underway in 1921.  At Reedy Point, two miles south of the old entrance at Delaware City, a new and straighter entrance was cut.  With the ship canal being dug through open land south of the old town, it was through this route that the big ships would eventually move.  Delaware City would have to content itself with being just on a branch course.


Construction is underway to create the sea level canal

In addition to straightening the entrance, deepening and widening work was part of the conversion to a sea level channel.  The total amount of material excavated was 16 million cubic yards.  As with the original canal, major problems were again encountered in excavating the Deep Cut.  Constructing five vertical lift bridges (one railroad and four highway) were an important part of the works, too.


Upon completion of deepening and dredging to a depth of 12’ at low tide, the locks at St. Georges and Chesapeake City were removed.  At Chesapeake City, the shrill cry of the steam whistle on the pump that had filled the canal rang out one last time, as the usefulness of the great water wheel ended.  T. N. Loraine, the engineer who had operated the pump for 48 years, shut it off one last time on a Saturday in 1927.  The ancient waterway was finally free of tolls and locks, though most people understood this was this was a first step in improvements, the limited dimensions still not fulfilling the requirements of a ship channel. 


Leading up to this had been the closing of another chapter in the history of the enterprise, that of the working life of many employees of the company.  In March 1926, the Every Evening reported, “The three canal towns, Delaware City, Chesapeake City, and St. Georges were surprised yesterday when official word was received advising of the lay off on April 1 of practically all the canal employees stationed in these towns.”  As completion of the construction came to a close, the Army Corps of Engineers would need few of the 30 lock tenders, steam pump operators, inspectors, and other workers.      


With the locks gone, the pumping station at Chesapeake City just a memory, and five massive vertical lift bridges spanning the reconstructed waterway, hundreds of people gathered to take part in the formal opening program that included participation by President Calvin Coolidge, Wilmington newspapers reported.  It was a Saturday in May 1927, and as the minutes ticked by, President Coolidge sat in Washington, D.C. waiting to press a button that would set wheels in motion that would raise the vertical lift bridge at Reedy Point.  Precisely at the appointed time, 11:30 a.m., the president put his hand on the button, telephone wires between the nation’s capitol and Reedy Point pulsated, and a buzz of machinery at the new bridge caused gears to start moving.  The span groaned and slowly moved upward.  As it steadily rose to open the waterway, it unfurled a large flag, letting hundreds of printed greetings from the President flutter down to the assembled crowd.


Once the bridge reached its raised position, the route to Chesapeake City was open.  A long line of gaily-decorated craft, including the Wilson Lines, City of Chester, passed under the bridge.  The fleet was greeted with cheers and flags at many points as spectators dotted the along the route.  At the mouth of Back Creek, the fleet rounded about, retracing its course back to the Delaware. 


The well-worn towpath where mules once clomped along pulling cargo boats east and west had given way to a wider and deeper waterway in the march of progress.  The old ditch was now nothing but a fading memory.  Such antiquated methods were no longer of interest in the era of the modern, government canal.

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2 Responses to Opening the Modern Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

  1. A nice, concise description of the canal’s history. I enjoyed the pictures immensely. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a ship docked in the canal but obviously that was the way it worked in the canal’s heyday.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks Morgan. I’ll try to put up a few more of those earlier photos showing steamers coming through the canal and the towns along it in a few days.

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