Construction of canals in the U.S began gradually. While just 161 km of canals had been built at the advent of the 19th century, over 6437 km of canals were available for navigation by the end of the century.
These waterways were vital for the economic development of the United States and were mainly built to connect rivers and improve the transportation of goods and people.
The early canals, like the Middlesex Canal in Massachusetts, were completed in 1803; however, it was the success of the Erie Canal that led to a canal boom in the U.S. Erie Canal was built between 1817 and 1825, spanning 363 miles and offering the first ever direct route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. It reduced shipping costs, propelled economic growth and aided in opening up the interior.
This prompted the construction of many other canals like the Chesapeake, Ohio and Illinois, which helped link the Midwest to the eastern seaboard to transport raw material, agricultural and manufactured goods in erstwhile isolated areas in the interiors of the U.S.
As the end of the 19th century grew near, there was a rise in the construction of railroads that surpassed canals as the main mode of transport since railroads were faster and more convenient. Several canals fell into disuse as more railroads came up, but some, like the Erie Canal, were upgraded to accommodate bigger ships. These historic canals of the U.S are now places of tourism, recreation, trade etc.
The period of canal construction in the U.S was pivotal as it opened up the interior regions for settlement, industrial and financial growth and, most importantly, trade. While today canals may not be the main means of transportation, they are nonetheless a significant part of the U.S history, culture and heritage.
Let’s look at some important canals in the U.S.
1. Erie Canal
The Erie Canal lies in Upstate New York and runs east to west between River Hudson and Lake Erie. It was built in 1825 and became the first waterway to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes region, thereby reducing the cost of shipping goods and taking people across the Appalachians.
It enabled the settlement of the Great Lakes region and the westward expansion of the U.S, which is why it was called ‘the Nation’s first Superhighway’.
Erie Canal was an engineering marvel when it was built. It stretched 363 miles and was the 2nd longest in the world after China’s Grand Canal. It was initially 12 m wide and 1.2 m deep but was expanded many times, especially between 1905-1918.
It operated at its optimum capacity in the 1850s, and in 1855, about 33,000 commercial shipments passed through it. It was competitive with the railroads till 1902, but traffic reduced drastically in the latter part of the 20th century due to stiff competition after the St.Lawrence Seaway became operational in 1959.
The Eir Canal connects the Champlain, Oswego and Cayga-Seneca Canals. It is mainly used by recreational watercraft presently and has become a tourist attraction, with several parks and museums built to commemorate its history. Also, the Erie Canalway Trial is a famous cycling route that goes along the canal across the state.
2. St. Lawrence Seaway
St. Lawrence Seaway is an expansive system of several canals, channels and locks in the US and Canada, allowing oceangoing ships to sail from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and as far inland as Duluth, Minnesota, at Lake Superior’s western end.
It is named after the St.Lawrence River that flows from Ontario Lake to the Atlantic Ocean. This seaway has tamed the St.Lawrence River, and the seaway’s deep draft navigation system is the longest in the world, stretching 3700 km into the heartland of North America.
The Seaway stretches from Montreal, Quebec, to Lake Erie and includes the Welland Canal. Vessels from the Atlantic Ocean can reach the ports in all of the 5 Great Lakes through the Great Lakes Waterway.
This navigational project was started in 1954 and was completed in 1959. It is vital for the economy of the region since it supports 356,858 U.S. and Canadian jobs and $50.9 billion/C$66.1 billion in economic activities.
3. Champlain Canal
The Champlain Canal is a historically relevant waterway that was built in 1823. Philip Schuyler, a general in the American Revolution and a New York Statesman, was an early proponent for constructing a canal system to bring goods to the market and connect Lake Champlain to the Hudson River.
Its construction began in 1817, and it was completed in 1822. It begins in Waterford at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers and allows access to Lake Champlain and on to Canada via the Richelieu Canal.
The primary section of the canal connecting the Hudson River to Lake Champlain opened for navigation on September 10, 1823, the same day as the bigger Erie Canal. Schuylerville village, named after the family of Philip Schuyler, prospered after the canal’s opening, and the Schuyler family that owned properties along the canal benefitted from the prosperous trade.
Today, the Champlain Canal is frequented by recreational boaters.
4. Pennsylvania Canal
The Pennsylvania Canal, also known as the Pennsylvania Canal System, was a complicated network of canals, locks, dams and ducts.
The canal was built over many decades, with the western section from Johnstown to Pittsburgh being completed in 1830, while the Juniata section was completed in 1832 and the Philadelphia section in 1834.
The line was around 395 miles long, and the cost of $25,000,000 was paid by the State of Pennsylvania. This route was a profitable one and was then sold off to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857, only to be eventually abandoned in the 1860s.
Built when the railroads were in their infancy, this canal was made for heavy ships loaded with bulk goods, linking the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and reaching new, growing markets in the Northwest Territory over the Ohio River, also called the Midwestern U.S.
When the canal’s construction was complete, a single trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh could be made in 3 to 5 days, depending on the weather conditions. The canal was then updated in 1837.
5. Union Canal
The Union Canal was actually a towpath canal in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Its construction was proposed in the 1690s to link Philadelphia with the Susquehanna River. It ran around 82 miles from Middletown on Susquehanna below Harrisburg to Reading on the River Schuylkill.
Its construction started in 1792 during the period of George Washington; however, its completion was delayed due to financial problems. It was finally completed in 1828 and was referred to as the Golden Link since it offered a vital transportation route for shipping anthracite coal and lumber to Philadelphia.
It was closed in the 1880s. However, its remnants, like the Union Canal Tunnel, a National Historic Landmark, remain.
The Union Canal Tunnel, operated by the Lebanon County Historical Society, is the earliest existing transport tunnel in the U.S. It connected the commercial centres of Harrisburg, Reading and the Port of Philadelphia from 1827 to 1885.
6. Delaware and Raritan Canal
Delaware and Raritan Canal lies in central New Jersey. It was constructed in the 1830s and connects the Delaware River and the Raritan River.
It was an effective and time-saving route for transporting cargo between Philadelphia and New York, especially anthracite coals from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
The idea to build this canal was suggested by the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, in the 1690s. He envisaged that such a canal would considerably shorten the voyage from Philadelphia to New York by 100 miles and prevent the need for boats to go out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Most of the canal system was made a State Park in 1974. Today, it is visited by people for kayaking, fishing and canoeing. Around 36 miles of the main canal and 22 miles of the feeder canal exist even today.
7. Morris Canal
The 172 km long canal lay across northern New Jersey. It linked the 2 canals in Easton, Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River from its western terminus at Phillipsburg, New Jersey, to New York Harbour and the New York City through the eastern terminals in Newark and on the Hudson River in Jersey City.
Morris Canal was seen as an engineering and technological marvel, the 1st in the U.S to traverse the northern New Jersey hills.
It was constructed to ship coal to the eastern cities that lacked wood. It was completed till Newark in 1831 and extended further towards Jersey City from 1834-1836.
Also, the Morris Canal made the transport of anthracite easy from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to New Jersey’s iron sector and other upcoming industries adopting steam power in New Jersey and the New York City area.
It also carried iron ore and minerals west to the blast furnaces in western parts of New Jersey, Bethlehem and Allentown. This canal was used widely till the 1860s; however, when railroads began to overtake canals, it was given on lease to the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1871.
8. Oswego Canal
Part of the New York State Canal System, the Oswego Canal lies in New York, U.S. It was opened in 1828 and is approximately 23.7 miles long, with a depth of 14 ft and 7 locks. It links the Erie Canal at 3 rivers, close to Liverpool to Lake Ontario and Oswego.
The canal follows the Oswego River’ route lined with dams and locks. It is the only route from the Atlantic/Hudson River system to Lake Ontario fully within the US.
Today, the bays and the back channels of the Oswego River are much suited for fishing, canoeing, kayaking and birdwatching. When the canal opened, its original starting point was in the middle of downtown Syracuse.
9. Lehigh Canal
This navigable waterway starts at Nesquehoning Creek’s mouth on the Lehigh River and northeastern areas of Pennsylvania.
The Canal was constructed in 2 sections over the course of 2 decades, starting in 1818.
The lower section ran between Easton and Jim Thrope. In Easton, it met the Delaware and Morris Canals, which enabled the transport of anthracite coal and other goods further up the eastern coast of the U.S.
Although the 72-mile-long canal was used for shipping a variety of goods, the primary cargo was anthracite coal, which was the only high-quality energy source in the US at that time, followed by pig iron.
Both coal and pig iron contributed to the growth of Lehigh Valley as a hub of the American Industrial Revolution, and the mining activities and hustle and bustle gave a blue-collar character to the towns surrounding the Lehigh Canal.
10. Welland Canal
This ship canal is in Ontario, Canada and is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes Waterway. It crosses the Niagara Peninsula between Port Weller on Ontario Lake and Port Colborne on Erie Lake.
It was established because the Niagara River, which is the only natural waterway linking the lakes, was not navigable due to Niagara Falls. This canal allows vessels to ascend and descend the Niagara Escarpment.
Around 3000 vessels pass through this canal, carrying roughly 40 million tonnes of cargo annually.
Since its opening, this canal has become a key factor in the growth of Toronto, Ontario.
The first canal and then its successors allowed cargo from ports on the Great Lakes like Detroit, Chicago etc, and other industrial areas of the U.S and Ontario to be transported to the Montreal Port or Quebec City, where they were reloaded onto ocean-going vessels for international shipping.
Before the Welland Canal was dug, shipping traffic between Ontario and Erie Lakes utilised a portage road between Chippawa, Ontario and Queenston, Ontario, situated on the Niagra River.
These were some of the canals in the U.S, constructed mostly in the 1800s. With the introduction of the railroads, most of them fell into disuse, while others were modernised and are used even today. Some have become landmarks of national importance, while others are known for being places of tourism and recreation.
Canals in the U.S played a vital role in the expansion of trade, transportation and settlement of the interior regions in the 18th-19th centuries. They brought economic prosperity and employment opportunities for people and towns located along them, and hence hundreds of canals were built in the U.S during this period.
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Zahra is an alumna of Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is an avid writer, possessing immaculate research and editing skills. Author of several academic papers, she has also worked as a freelance writer, producing many technical, creative and marketing pieces. A true aesthete at heart, she loves books a little more than anything else.
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