The James River and Kanawha Canal was a canal built in Virginia
to link the western reaches of the James River with the eastern portion of the Kanawha River. The canal
was to be used for the transport of freight and passengers.
Opening the interior
The expansion from the east coast tended to stall where the coastal rivers were interrupted by falls. In Virginia, cities grew up at these falls. On the Rappahannock grew Fredericksburg, on the Potomac was Alexandria, on the James was Richmond, and on the Appomattox was Petersburg. Coastal commerce could easily enough travel inland to the falls, but had to be transferred to smaller vessals for the trip further inland. George Washington surveyed western Virginia as a young man, and by 1772 had developed the idea of a canal connecting the James and Kanawha rivers, which would open up the continent's interior to trade and settlement. The James River starts near Clifton Forge, Virginia and terminates at the Chesapeake Bay. The Kanawha River forms about 30 miles east of present day Charleston, West Virginia and flows into the Ohio River, which in turn joins the Mississippi. That allows access all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and the entire interior of the continent to the Rocky Mountains. An overland connector was proposed to connect the two river systems. Washington appeared before the Virginia General Assembly in 1784 to pursuade them to support the endeavor. The General Assembly agreed, and in 1785 The James River Company was formed,(with George Washington himself as honorary president of the company), and the project became reality. The first phase was to build locks to navigate past the falls of the James at Richmond. The James River Company opened the first commercial canal in the United States in 1790, a section from Richmond to Westham.
The times, they are a changin'
The canal supplimented the previous bateaux boat transportation. Bateaux were smaller than the canal vessels, with a shallower draft and smaller capacity. They could be poled upstream. A bateauxman standing on either side of the vessel pushed it along with long wooden poles. The bateaux transported hogsheads (barrels) of tobacco and wheat downriver to Richmond and transported imported goods from France and England, furniture, dishes, and clothing back upriver into the interior. The bateaux boats only drew about 18" of water. The larger canal vessals required mules or horses to draw them upstream along towpaths with their burden of passengers or goods.
An expensive proposition
The canals were costly to create. Locks had to be built to circumvent rapids and falls. Several times the project slowed or stopped due to economic or political events. The War of 1812 slowed construction. As the canal progressed inland the labor grew more difficult. Richmond is on the coastal plain and the soil is sand or clay. As they progressed westward into the piedmont, the soil became rockier and hilly, causing the project to slow and eventually to stop. After some years of inactivity, the James River Company ran out of funds and gave up on the project. The Commonwealth of Virginia revived the project in 1820 with state funding through the Virginia Board of Public Works. The project stalled again until 1835 when the new James River and Kanawha Company undertook the task . By 1840 the canal reached Lynchburg and in 1851 it reached Buchanan. The Canal spanned a distance of 197 miles at this point. Work further upriver was also done, but Buchanan was the actual functional end of the Canal. There are remains of canal locks upstream of Buchanan near the town of Eagle Rock, Virginia. That is the westernmost construction performed on the Canal. As part of the overland portage portion of the system, the James River and Kanawha Company built a covered bridge (named Humpback Bridge) 4 miles west of Covington, Virginia. The overland portion (known as the James River and Kanawha Turnpike)follows much of present day US Route 60, and is also known as the Midland Trail.
Long before the canal reached Buchanan the railroads were competing with canals. A planned rail connector between the two river systems was delayed by the Civil War. War damage which was never repaired along with interruptions to the flow of commerce set back the Canal, a final hurdle it never was to overcome. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad completed a line from Richmond, Virginia to the Ohio River at Huntington, West Virginia on January 28, 1873. This event sounded the Canal's death kneel. It was sold to the Richmond and Allegeny Railroad, which used the towpaths for track bed. That was in turn sold to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. That rail line is still used to primarily transport coal from the West Virginia mines to the export terminal at Newport News, Virginia.
Labor was difficult to obtain and much of the hard work in digging waterways, building locks and clearing the waterway fell to slaves or Irish immigrant labor. Slave owners rented out their slaves as laborers. The owners viewed it as an opportunity to generate some much needed cash. The James River and Kanawha Company also owned their own slave labor force. It was viewed as a good deal, since the slave could be sold for as much or more after the job was done as he cost in the beginning. The labor conditions were horrible, and the slaves were worked mercilessly. They were considered tools to be used, little different than a shovel or pickaxe.
Today in Richmond a portion of the Canal has been restored. A turning basin is part of the restoration. It is part of an urban revitalization program in the former capital of the Confederacy. Along the riverfront's 1.25 mile length lie several exhibits and a Civil War Visitor's Center