James River and Kanawha Canal

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The James River and Kanawha Canal was a canal in Virginia, which was built to facilitate shipments of passengers and freight by water between the western counties of Virginia and the coast.

Surveyed and planned by George Washington, and begun in 1785, the canal was half completed by 1851, stopping in Buchanan, located in Botetourt County, Virginia, 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 Commonwealth of Virginia. After the American Civil War, when funds for continued financial help were not available from the war-torn state or private sources, it finally succumbed to the competition. It 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. He believed 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 and Lynchburg 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. 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. In 1789 he would be elected its first president.

Building the canal

The James River Company, promoted by such men as George Washington, Edmund Randolph, and John Marshall, opened in 1790 the first commercial canal in the United States, stretching from Richmond to Westham and paralleling the James for seven miles. 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. 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, a transitional area between the sandy coastal plain and the mountains. Enslaved African-Americans did most of the labor and thus made another major contribution to Virginia's wealth. Typically the slaves were hired from plantation owners who lived near the route of the canal. After work stalled for a number of years, 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. It received the financial help of state funds through the Virginia Board of Public Works. Work stalled yet again, however. 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 Lynchburg. Service was inaugurated by 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, the plan was to link it to the James River and Kanawha Turnpike to provide passage through the most rugged portions of the mountains. The goal was to reach the Kanawha River 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. 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 to emerge with more efficient transportation beginning in the 1830s, long before the canal was finally completed. Damage which the canal incurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865) was never completely repaired. Finally 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 as a through route was clear. To connect with the railroads, the James River and Kanawha Canal Company was authorized in 1876 to build the Buchanan and Clifton Forge Railway to connect the westernmost point of the canal with the railroad.

However, in 1878, both the canal and the Buchanan and Clifton Forge Railway were sold to the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad company, which built tracks along the towpaths. That railroad was sold to the C&O. Thus Clifton Forge became the division point of the large east-to-west system that resulted when the pioneer roads were combined under the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company.

Today, CSX trains loaded with coal from the mountains follow the old canal route, much of it at a gentler "water level" gradient. They are headed to port at Newport News on Hampton Roads. The Buckingham Branch Railroad, a short-line railroad has a lease to operate the original C&O alignment over the former Virginia Central Railroad, including the Mountain Subdivision.


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, Lynchburg 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. 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.

Visitors can also visit Three Mile Lock or Pumphouse Park located behind the Carillon in William Byrd Park. This park was the 3-mile mark for the old canal system. It contains parts of the old 18th century locks, gatekeeper's house, and the City's 1901 historic water pumping station called the Byrd Park Pumphouse. The City is working on plans to return the pumphouse to some form of public use by restoring its old dance floor (original upper level was built for public events) and opening the oldest section for tours. Several historical markers about the canals themselves and the City of Richmond are dispersed throughout the length of the restored portion of the canal. The park is popular with fisherman and dog lovers.

Much of the route of the connecting James River and Kanawha Turnpike portage through West Virginia is today the Midland Trail, a National Scenic Byway.

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