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James River and Kanawha Canal
The James River and Kanawha Canal was built to facilitate shipments of passengers and freight by water between the western reaches of the James River and the eastern reaches of the Kanawha River. Surveyed and planned by George Washington, and begin in 1785, it was completed by 1851 only as railroads began overtaking canals as an efficient mode of transportation.
The canal was an expensive project which failed several times financially and was frequently damaged by floods. It was largely financed by the State of Virginia. After the American Civil War, when funds for continued financial help were not available from the worn-torn state or private sources, it finally succumbed to the competition, and was bought and dismantled by one of the railroads in the 1870s.
Planning a route to link western waters
The James River and Kanawha Canal was a project 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 felt that was the key to helping Virginia to become an economic powerhouse in what would become the United States quite a few years later.
In those times, waterways were the major highways of commerce. Early developments along the east coast of the colonies tended to end at the fall line 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.
It was known by then that the Ohio River flowed into the Mississippi River, which flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. It was also known that the Allegheny Mountains formed the Eastern Continental Divide, and that there was apparently no inland waterway to sail between the two large watersheds.
By 1772, Washington had identified the Potomac and James rivers as the most promising locations for canals to be built to join with the western rivers. His preference was the James, as the Potomac led to rivers in land disputed with Pennsylvania and would be equally helpful to Maryland, whereas 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, with George Washington as honorary president, to build locks around the falls at Richmond. By then, Washington was quite busy with the affairs of the new nation which would elect him as its first president in 1789.
Building the canal
The canal supplemented existing bateaux transportation on the James River. Bateaux, flat-bottomed boats laden with tobacco hogsheads, floated down the James to Richmond and returned with French and English imports, 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. Locks were necessary at points where the river had rapids, and 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 canal company went broke and gave up.
In 1820, the Commonwealth (state) 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, Charles Ellet Jr. , and Daniel Livermore . By 1840, the canal was completed to present-day Lynchburg, and service was inaugurated William Henry Harrison who was elected president that same year. In 1847, Walter W. Gwynn was hired as Chief Engineer of the James River and Kanawha Canal, with Edward Lorraine as his assistant.
The canal eventually extended 196.5 miles west of Richmond to Buchanan by 1851. 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. However, both war damage and interruption in the flow of commerce along the canal did great harm to it.
Competing with railroads
Railroads began emerging with more efficient transportation beginning in the 1830s, long before the canal was finally completed. Damage which occurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865) was never completely repaired, and the canal could not compete with the railroads better efficiency. By the time the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway was built through to the Ohio River in 1873, the doom of the canal was clear. 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 Newport News on Hampton Roads
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.
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