Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
The Canal Age July 1, 1998
by James E. Held

[image] Two leaky canal boats at the McDowell Lumber Yard, Syracuse, New York, 1910 (Erie Canal Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Little is known of the vessels and waterways that fueled the Canal Age in the United States, from 1790 to 1855, since few records were kept and fewer of the much-used boats survived. Yet industrialization would not have been possible without quick, inexpensive transportation. Mountains, forests, and swamps had hampered the development of the Northwest Territory, acquired after the Revolutionary War, and the lands of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Settlers beyond the Appalachians were isolated and forced to live by subsistence farming with little access to free markets or manufactured products. On the settled eastern seaboard, forest decimation created an energy crisis for coastal cities, but the lack of water- and roadways made English coal shipped across the Atlantic cheaper in Philadelphia than Pennsylvania anthracite mined 100 miles away. Canals would benefit both the East and the Midwest. For more than a century, they had provided Europe with inexpensive, reliable transportation, and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers believed they were the key to the New World's future.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1826 bridged the Appalachians, opening the Great Lakes to commerce. With trade funneling up the Hudson River, the canal made New York City a trade hub and contributed to its explosive growth. Meanwhile, farmers left the overworked soil of the seaboard for fertile midwestern lands, and in 1848, the first cargo of New Orleans sugar passed through the newly opened Illinois & Michigan Canal, a 100-mile waterway between Chicago and LaSalle. The passage of the sugar through Chicago en route to Buffalo, New York, made Chicago the hub of the Midwest. Via such man-made waterways, often only 60 feet wide and five feet deep, distant frontier communities were connected with the commerce of the eastern seaboard. Canal boats towed by mules transported immigrants and manufactured goods westward, while cargoes of stone, coal, grain, and lumber fed the early Industrial Revolution in the East. Today, murky water fills the few narrow channels that remain.

[image] Canal Basin, Syracuse, New York, 1938. On average Erie Canal boats lasted ten years before they began to rot away. (Erie Canal Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Wooden canal boats worked hard, withstood tremendous abuse, and rotted quickly after abandonment. Except for scattered ribs, frames, and keelsons, they have disappeared with few traces. Boat design conformed to the size of locks and channel depth of waterways, but no standards of construction existed even within one canal system. Skills were taught through hands-on experience. Few drawn plans have survived, and historic photos reveal little about construction techniques.

In 1996 flood damage spurred the draining of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, now a popular recreation site, revealing seven hulls. Floyd Mansberger and the staff at Fever River Research of Springfield, Illinois, under contract from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, mapped and studied the remains, which had rotted or burned and then sunk in the deep mud bottom. (See "Seven Rare Canal Boats Found.) They estimate that the boats, each of which is unique, date ca. 1870. The hulls reveal the skills required to steam-bend stubborn hand-cut white oak planking, which was then joined with hand-forged spikes to ribs and framing. One intact rudder was recovered, as well as block and tackle, knives, forks, whiskey and soda bottles, a cast-iron skillet, and the top of a chest carved with the name J.D. Dillion. A waterlogged newspaper was found missing its date, but an 1887 dime confirms the period. During the one-year exposure, Mansberger noted some deterioration of the frames, which were left in the canal and buried with its thick mud. The canal itself was reflooded once park rangers finished making repairs to banks and locks, in time for the 1998 sesquicentennial celebration of the canal's opening.

Other remnants of the Canal Age are at Chittenango Landing, New York, where visitors can see a 96-by-17.5-foot Erie Canal wreck excavated in 1992. A dike keeps the vessel submerged under six inches of water, to which chemicals are added for clarity and preservation. In New York's Finger Lakes, intact boats dating to the 1870s were extensively surveyed at 28 sites in 1979 and 1980, some at depths of more than 100 feet. Unfortunately, no efforts to preserve these boats have been made, and anglers anchoring over these fishing spots continue to damage the fragile vessels.

[image] The 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, considered the greatest single engineering achievement on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, took 12 years to build. (Courtesy NPS, C&O Canal) [LARGER IMAGE]

Canal construction inspired America's first tunnels, well before the invention of drills and dynamite. In 1836 Lee Montgomery was an engineer and contractor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, an ambitious project intended to penetrate the Allegheny Mountains from Washington, D.C., to the Ohio River. To shorten the waterway by six miles through difficult terrain on what is now the West Virginia-Maryland border, the company decided to tunnel 3,118 feet through the Paw Paw Ridge. Montgomery had invested much of his own money in the project, and although resourceful and inventive, he was hampered by the soft shale. Frequent cave-ins buried the hard-earned efforts of Irish laborers who eventually removed 82,000 cubic yards of shale. Welsh and German masons lined the 24-foot-diameter shaft with six million bricks. Pressure to succeed grew under the difficult logistics of this isolated site and the looming deadline of a two-year contract. Cholera swept through the workers' crowded shanty towns. Two months behind in payroll, Montgomery's good relations with the workers deteriorated, leading to strikes and riots. Finally, in 1840 he broke through the other side of the mountain at the price of personal bankruptcy. It took another ten years to complete this engineering marvel, 300 percent over budget. Plagued by creditors, Montgomery received only posthumous acclaim for its success. The Paw Paw Tunnel is still open for visitors to the Chesapeake & Ohio National Park.

[image] The Paw Paw Tunnel today (Courtesy NPS, C & O Canal) [LARGER IMAGE]

Tunneling was not the only means of bypassing extreme elevation. Inclined planes were cheaper to build than canals and avoided the problems of slow lock transiting and the watering of canals on well-drained mountainsides. Boats in cradles on wheeled carriages were winched uphill by steam power on Pennsylvania's Mainline Portage. New Jersey's Morris Canal, which opened in 1831, ingeniously used water turbines for power. Its rugged 102 miles cut across the 914-foot summit of the Kittatiny Mountains between Phillipsburg and Newark using 23 inclines. Loaded boats weighing under 100 tons were pulled by mules into snug cradles on hinged 16-wheel carriages fitted with locking brakes. Water flowing down a large pipe revolved the blades of a turbine generating 235 horsepower. Shafts and gears turned drums of cable, lifting vessels from the canal onto tracks. Slowly, the hinged boats and carriages flexed over the summit, then eased down into a canal channel to float free again. Bulkheads kept cargoes from shifting. Such innovative design influenced Prussian and Japanese engineering, but still could not keep obsolescence from railroad competition at bay, and the canal closed in 1924. At Waterloo Village, once a colonial settlement and later a canal port on the Morris Canal, mule bridges, the remains of a guard lock where the canal intersected the Musconetcong River, a water-filled stretch of the canal, and the remains of an inclined plane can still be seen. The site's Canal Museum houses a piece of 12-foot diameter cable drum from the inclined plane and other artifacts from the Canal Age, explained with photographs, drawings, and models.

In addition to inclined planes, the Delaware and Hudson Canal used a daunting 108 locks on its 108-mile passage from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to the Hudson River port of Rondout, New York. The D&H opened in 1828, and was deepened and its locks expanded in the late 1840s and 1850s, increasing its capacity in order to compete with the Delaware & Raritan and Morris canals for the same markets in New York City. In 1846, engineer John A. Roebling, who had just completed the successful Allegheny Aqueduct in Pittsburgh, won the bid to construct four aqueducts on the D&H. The Lackawaxen Aqueduct, built where the canal and the Delaware River crossed, was necessary because a bottleneck caused by the mixing of canal and river traffic often delayed passage for days. Loggers steering unwieldy and unstoppable timber rafts to the Delaware Bay often collided with fully laden canal boats. Spanning 534 feet across the river, the aqueduct raised the canal boats and allowed the log rafts and winter ice to pass freely beneath the bridge. The Lackawaxen Aqueduct no longer exists, but Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct, now known as the Roebling Bridge, still stands and is a National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the National Park Service as a bridge for motor traffic.

Roebling was the first engineer to use stiffeners and braces in suspension bridges. He used spun wire rope to create great, majestic spans. Stranded rope was already used in German mining, but from early experiments begun on his Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, farm to mass production in his Trenton, New Jersey, factory (the world's largest), Roebling supplied wire cable for ship rigging, elevators, telegraphs, mines, and oil wells. (See John A. Roebling Son's Co., Kinkora Works Recording Project by the Historic American Engineering Record.) Working with 8.5 inch diameter cables made of 2,150 individual spun wires, Roebling required fewer masonry tiers for support than his competitors. Saddles--U-shaped pieces of cast iron--strung from the cables supported wooden flooring and 1,800 tons of water in a trough 18.5 feet wide and six feet deep. Such construction and other improvements allowed for 130-ton boats. With the increased capacity, tonnage exceeded one million in 1855 and peaked at three million in 1872. Still, the future belonged to the railroads, and in 1898, the D&H closed.

In 1980, the National Park Service purchased the structure, still working as a toll bridge. A 1983 renovation found the masonry and iron suspension cables in excellent condition. Log rafts and mule-drawn boats are gone, replaced by 50,000 autos rambling over the sturdy 14-inch timbers each year. This handsome 1848 structure, the oldest suspension bridge in America, has endured the ravages of water and ice. It still stands, solid and graceful, a prelude to Roebling's masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883. Downstream, stone abutments are the last traces of other bridges swept away by the raging Delaware River.

When the Canal Age began, land-rich America was capital poor. Of $188 million invested by 1861 in these waterways, $115 million was government money, while $62 million was from bonds bought by foreign banking houses. (European speculators found America a profitable if risky place to invest.) State governments created new financing methods such as property and income taxes. In fact, canals set the precedent for the federal government's use of eminent domain, fueling the controversy over the right of the new regime to make internal improvements across state lines. Eventually, such improvements and industrialization helped unite West and North against the slave-holding South in the Civil War.

Railroads, still unproven technology at the time, eventually eclipsed this era in America's rush to industrialize. Canals are human creations that reflect a simple yet efficient level of technology. Primitive surveying advanced into an exact science, while hydraulic cement and suspension and tunneling techniques eased the way for other engineering enterprises. Benjamin Wright, a country lawyer, was chief engineer of the Erie Canal at a time when West Point was the nation's sole engineering college. Canal construction led to the training of more engineers. By 1850, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Michigan, and Harvard, Yale, Union, and Dartmouth colleges offered technical degrees. The Canal Age produced 5,000 miles of a watery web stretching across the nation, connecting the era of Jeffersonian agrarianism with the Industrial Age. Only a few vestiges of this period remain. The American Canal Society works to increase awareness and rescue this chapter of our heritage from further decay and neglect. Today, recreational use from cyclists, hikers, and canoers has helped stimulate interest in the past. In 1984 the Illinois and Michigan Canal became America's first National Heritage Corridor, followed by New England's Blackstone Canal. The Ohio and Erie Canal was so designated in 1996.

* Erie Canal Online
* Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor

James E. Held has transited the world's major canals as an officer in the Merchant Marine, and is a member of the American Canal Society.

Further Reading

Ronald E. Shaw, Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990) is excellent, providing broad coverage of America's canal age.

Charles Hadfield, World Canals: Inland Navigation Past and Present. (Newton Abbot, Devonshire: David & Charles, 1986) is an epic compilation of the world's waterways.

Paul A. Shackel, Culture Change and the New Technology: An Archaeology of the Early American Industrial Era (New York: Plenum Publishing, 1996) examines the influence of new technology on the lives of workers and their families in Harpers Ferry, located on the route of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America