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The Founding River James River and Kanawha Canal
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The James River and Kanawha Canal, Richmond, Virginia - 1866. by J. R. Hamilton
The James River and Kanawha Canal, Richmond, Virginia - 1866. by J. R. Hamilton © Courtesy of the Library of Congress

An ambitious project that George Washington proposed as a young man surveying the mountains of western Virginia, the Canal succeeded in linking the Piedmont and Tidewater regions. It was a driver of economic growth for Virginia, but was ultimately overtaken by the railroads, floods, costs, and the Civil War.

View on James River and Kanawha Canal near the Haxall Flour Mills; ruins of the Gallego Mills beyond (1865)
Richmond, Virginia. Canal basin. April 1865 (Burnt district and Capitol building in background)
East end of the Canal Walk in Richmond, Virginia
Canal Walk in Richmond, Virginia

George Washington, that Tidewater man so familiar with the needs and potential of the west, strongly advocated the cause of developing the navigation of the James River, with the ultimate hope of connecting the headwaters of the eastward-flowing James with the westward-flowing Kanawha Rivers. According to John Marshall, a biographer of Washington's and himself a supporter of the improvement, Washington seized the opportunity provided by his triumphal visit to Richmond in the company of Lafayette, to "conquer those objections to the plan which yet lingered in the bosoms of those who could perceive in it no advantages to compensate for the present expense."

The James River Company was chartered in 1785 with George Washington serving as honorary President for the purpose of improving navigation on the James from Richmond to Botetourt County, a distance of approximately 200 miles. Much of the canal was surveyed and planned by Washington himself in his younger years. The Company's success in keeping the river and several of its branches free of obstructions contributed markedly to the development of Southside and the Central Piedmont region. Navigation of the James was "better than any other Atlantic River above the falls," Secretary Albert Gallatin reported to the United States Senate in 1808.

The company also completed the first "Tidewater Connection" through the construction of a canal which, bypassing the falls above Richmond, connected the upper and lower James River. In 1820, the Commonwealth -- already a large shareholder -- bought the charter of the James River Company. During the period of State operation, the company entirely reconstructed the canal from Richmond to Westham and extended it to Goochland County, constructed the Balcony Falls Canal through a gap in the Blue Ridge, improved navigation on the Great Kanawha River in western Virginia, and developed the Kanawha Turnpike over the Alleghany Mountains.

During the fifty years of its corporate existence, the James River Company remained essentially a river improvement company. As such, it was a financial success and contributed to the economic well-being of the James River Valley. The canal at Richmond which permitted bateaux traffic to continue beyond the fall-line, and the trans-Alleghany turnpike which went some way to tying western Virginia to the east, were classic examples of internal improvements being made throughout America during the early nineteenth century. But Virginians since George Washington had called for more effective use of the James-Kanawha gateway and during the ante-bellum period these voices were joined by others committed to further improvement of the James River itself.

In 1835, with the incorporation of the James River and Kanawha Company, the canal era proper of Virginia history begins. This successor to the James River Company completed a canal along the James from Richmond to Lynchburg (the First Division, opened to traffic in 1840) and thence to Buchanan (the Second Division, completed eleven years later). The ninety locks from Richmond to Buchanan had a total lift of 728 feet. By the 1850's, the main works along the canal, including a connection with Lexington and the Rivanna River, were completed. The James River system was what rivers had always been in Virginia prior to the railroads: the main means for transportation and communication.

While the James River and Kanawha Company built its canal system, it was also developing a reliable water route to the lower James at Richmond. By 1854 the Tidewater Connection was essentially complete and consisted of five great stone locks which formed a flight of water stairs enabling the larger river boats to pass into tidewater. The canal company also reconstructed the docking facilities at Rocketts, Richmond's dock area at the head of Tidewater navigation on the James. These facilities were purchased in 1841 from the Richmond Dock Company.

George Bagby and other contemporaries have recorded their impressions of the effect which the canal had on the growth of Lynchburg. At Richmond, the docking facilities, together with the Tidewater Connection certainly contributed to the late-ante-bellum rise of the port, and incidentally helped to keep the James River and Kanawha Company solvent. The demise of the company -- inevitable once the railroads had proven themselves -- was hastened by the decision to proceed with plans for the inordinately expensive third division of the canal from Buchanan to Covington at the base of the Alleghanies.

The profits of the canal and docking operations of the company were largely wasted on the new construction. Then followed the War Between the States and the consequent destruction and deterioration of canal works. "And now the canal, after a fair and costly trial is to give away to the rail," George Bagby wrote sometime after Appomattox, "and I in common with the great body of Virginians, am heartily glad of it. It has served its purpose well enough, perhaps, for its day and generation. The world has passed it by... The dream of the great canal to the Ohio... must be abandoned along with other dreams."

In 1880 the canal system was sold to the Alleghany Railroad Company, and tracks were laid on the towpath, thus preventing canalboat traffic.

This article was compiled from the following document:

National Park Service. Tucker H. Hill and William Trout (June 23, 1971). National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District: From Ship Locks to Bosher's Dam

Learn more and experience the Canal:

Who built the canal?

Visit the James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District in Richmond

 

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