The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C & D Canal) is sometimes called the “parent of all canal projects in the United States.” Delaware Valley’s early European settlers (1600s) were quick to recognize the commercial value of such a waterway. At the time, goods destined from Maryland to Delaware (or in reverse)
were carted overland at “great expense.” The need for a secure water passage between Philadelphia and Baltimore also became especially obvious during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Opposition from Congress however, delayed funding. Finally in 1824, the Federal Government contributed nearly a half million dollars toward its construction, and another $175,000 was provided by the States of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. With its completion, passage between the two large ports was shortened by about 265 miles.
The canal was officially opened on October 17, 1829. In celebration, the commander at Fort Delaware ordered three salutes of 24 guns each. Delaware City marked the east end of the canal; Chesapeake City, the entire town then consisting of only a lock house and tavern, stood at the western entrance. The 14-mile long canal had four locks, each of which was 100 feet in length and 22 feet wide. Vessels of no more than that size could travel the canal, provided that they did not draw more than 7-feet. There was a toll charge for its use and another for mules or horses used in towing the vessels. From the 247-foot span Summit Bridge, which stood some 60 feet above the waterway, the view of the canal was described as “awfully grand and beautiful.”
William T. Barry, U.S. Postmaster General in President Andrew Jackson’s administration, wrote to his daughter about his trip through the waterway. “We arrived here safely on the evening of the 24th” (Oct. 1829). “We came in a steamboat to the canal” and crossed the waterway “most delightfully in a superb barge drawn by six horses.” Having arrived at Delaware Bay, they then boarded a steamboat to Philadelphia.
From the start, steamboats and packet boats and barges, transported materials to markets while some vessels regularly provided excursions on the C & D Canal. A favorite visitor site, located where workers had carved away a ridge some 80 feet high and 230 feet wide to accommodate passage of the waterway. It was spanned by a wooden, single-arch covered bridge.
The existence of the canal proved especially important in protecting shipping during wartime. It was pivotal in saving Washington DC during the Civil War. With the exception of waterways, the city was essentially cut off from the north. As the Confederates became firmly entrenched on the south side of the Potomac, Union troops out of Philadelphia were transported via steamboats through the canal and then to Annapolis. A few of the vessels, too large for the C & D Canal, sailed around the cape; they also made their way to Annapolis. Arriving there, they boarded trains for Washington. The waterway was also important in shipping guns, ammunition, food and other supplies. Confederate soldiers taken prisoner were transported via the canal to Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island, offshore of Delaware City.
The canal also proved its importance during both World Wars, providing protection from enemy submarines by those using the inland waterways. The German sub U-156 alone manage in 1918, to sink 34 coastal vessels in a period of just 2 months. During the Second World War, U-boats sank 233 coastal Atlantic and Gulf ships, again in a mere 2-month period (1942).
For its first 90 years, the canal operated as a privately-owned company. In 1919, it was purchased by the Federal Government. Following a series of improvements, it became a sea-level canal with a width of 450- feet and depth of 35-feet. Operated today by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a Corps dispatcher monitors all commercial vessels from a control room at Chesapeake City, MD. The C & D Canal Museum, also operated by the Corps, is on the same property. On exhibit are artifacts from the canal’s early history. A gravel road runs on the south side of the canal, from Chesapeake City, MD to Middletown, DE. On the north side, the paved Michael Castle (bike) Trail (DE) extends for 9 miles.
The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal is one of the busiest canals in the world. Yearly, over 25,000 vessels transit the waterway. Pleasure craft, and there are many of them, need to be on the lookout for large freighters/tankers and tugs towing barges. Though there is no speed limit on the waterway, care is expected to minimize a boat’s wake (wave wash).
At its western end, four ranges mark the entrance to the canal. At night, mercury vapor lamps, positioned 500 feet apart, illuminate both banks of the canal. “Buoys and navigational markers are red-right-return at the approaches to both eastern and western entrances to the canal.” Authorities also recommend that regardless of a vessel’s size, a watch should be maintained on VHF channel 13. An approaching sea-going commercial vessel may s set off a series of 5 or more whistles; these are danger signals – don’t ignore them.
The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal is part of the important Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), that extends from New England to Florida. It provides a safe navigational alternate to the open coast.