Delaware and its canal: the early history of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, 1769-1829

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University of Delaware
The peninsula separating the Chesapeake and Delaware bays is indented with numerous streams. A dividing ridge, approximately eighty feet in height at its summit, causes them either to flow eastward into the Delaware or westward into the Chesapeake. The headwaters of these streams feeding the two bays are within a few thousand yards of each other, a fact which suggested at an early date a project to connect by an artificial waterway the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. The eighteenth century visionaries of this plan were succeeded in the nineteenth century by active proponents, such as Joshua Gilpin, who labored to achieve the waterway. ☐ At no time was the project far removed from the minds of the farsighted after 1769. In 1803 a company, jointly chartered by Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, was finally formed which began construction the following year on a Chesapeake and Delaware canal to run from the Elk River in Maryland to the Christina River in Delaware. The attempt soon proved abortive when money sufficient to complete the canal could not be obtained. The canal company lay dormant for eighteen years. Stimulated in 1821 by the desire of Philadelphia merchants for an all-water route to Pennsylvania’s interior and by New York’s great example of canal construction, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company was reorganized and refinanced in 1822-1823. The canal, relocated and enlarged, was pushed to a successful completion in 1829. ☐ When the canal line was placed to the south of its original location near Wilmington and New Castle, most of Delaware’s support of the waterway was alienated. Although opinion in the state had always been divided, strong encouragement for the earlier canal route was found in northern New Castle County, especially among Wilmington merchants and industrialists. They opposed the new location, however, for two basic reasons. First, the relocation was seen merely as a jealous gesture towards Wilmington on the part or the Philadelphians who had gained the direction of the canal company. Secondly, it was sincerely believed to be physically impossible to dig a lasting canal through the selected region. ☐ Difficulties met in the construction of the canal lend weight to the force and sincerity of Delaware’s objections to the lower route. Nevertheless, perseverance, aid from federal and state treasuries, and engineering skill enabled the canal builders to achieve what in its day was considered a monumental engineering feat. The canal, whose grand dimensions made it an immediate and notable tourist attraction, proved useful to bay navigation and national defense. A series of misfortunes prevented the waterway from becoming a paying business, but its usefulness cannot be doubted. In 1919 the largest stockholder in the company, the United States Government, purchased the canal property and franchises. Subsequently widened and deepened, the waterway now plays a vital role in the inland navigation of the United States.