CHESAPEAKE CITY — The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal has become so much a part of the landscape that is Cecil County, that the awesome feat of engineering is often overlooked.
Certainly, it is prominently featured in photographs of the area even making the cover of photographic art books and being heavily featured in open air art events held in the old canal town. People still stand along the banks of the C&D Canal or enjoy the waterfront vistas afforded at restaurants and pubs or bed and breakfasts on the north and south side to marvel at the size of the ships passing under the bridge, and likely always will.
It really takes a look to the left or right when crossing over the Route 213 bridge between north and south Chesapeake City to get an idea of the scope of the C&D Canal and physically observe the straight and rigid lines that could only be man-made, which form the banks of the canal built to connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware River.
A connecting canal was a brilliant idea and an economic development expedient, but it was not of modern vintage. Before the forming of America the concept was broached in 1679 by two Labadists emissaries to Maryland from what is now New York, Jasper Dankerts and Peter Sluyter. In the journal of their travels, they wrote that a waterway between the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay would be desirable.
“What is now done by land in carts might be done by water for a distance of more than [600 miles],” they wrote. Perhaps after writing the line they also recorded that the task would be gargantuan and require “the highest authority” in the area to push it forward to fruition.
The concept may have been brilliant, and trade-inducing, but it took 127 years before any real constructive effort followed the 1679 concept. It was 1807 when several routes were surveyed and in 1806 Benjamin H. Latrobe made a survey of a route that was eventually selected for the canal noting in his submission that “32 surveys had previously been made.” Fifteen more would be undertaken, as well. The number of surveys may seem astronomical, but engineers were greatly interested in this monumental work, especially after the Maryland legislature passed an act of incorporation for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company on Dec. 7, 1799.
That 1799 act authorized the cutting of a canal between the two bodies of water, and empowered the canal company to receive subscriptions of up to $500,000 in shares of $200 each to prosecute the work. As shares were sold, surveys conducted and funds raised, the company directors sought the cooperation of the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania, both reliant upon waterway transport for trade goods, to ensure a smooth process.
It wasn’t until May 1803 that the company was thoroughly organized and completed, when a sufficient number of stockholders had been acquired. The first stockholder meeting was held in Wilmington, Del., with William Tilghman, of Pennsylvania, selected as president of the organization. His board of directors included some of Maryland’s most famous names including Benjamin H. Latrobe and Cornelius Howard (the brother of Gen. John Eager Howard), among others.
The board selected the Elk River route, which would course through Chesapeake City, and the work finally began on May 2, 1804 — by hand. There were stops and starts, barroom brawls between workers were not uncommon, and long lags in work, when money dried up but the riverbed did not, were frequent and lengthy.
Nonetheless after 25 years of work, or to the modern reader 190 years ago on this week, on July 4, 1829, water was admitted to the canal and the vision of two visitors from New York from a century and a half earlier, finally came to fruition.
When it opened in 1829, the C&D Canal was the most expensive waterway in America with the cost of digging it shared by Pennsylvania at $100,000, Maryland at $50,000, Delaware at $25,000 and the federal government at $300,000. These funds were, of course, supplemented by the little over $500,000 subscribed by investors.
At the time, the hand-dug slash through the Eastern Shore was considered “one of the outstanding works of human skill and ingenuity in the world.”