Reflections on the Water-Blog by Lynn Whitney


The C&D Canal? Never Heard of it!

The C&D Canal?  Never Heard of It!

              Chances are if you don’t have a boat you have never heard of the C&D Canal.  Chances are if you don’t have a boat, you aren’t reading this.  If you have a boat or are looking for one then you probably have traveled the canal, or at least heard of it.  But, maybe there are some things you didn’t know.  Let’s begin your trip to the Chesapeake Bay.  What can you expect to see and do?

              You are leaving Riverside Marina.  You have passed under the Tacony Palmyra Bridge, which they have opened for you if your mast is over 61 ft.  Ahead of you is the beautiful Philadelphia skyline, shimmering blue in the sunshine.  Don’t forget to look for Billy Penn!  Enjoy the changing scenery on your leisurely ride to the Delaware Bay.  First claimed by Henry Hudson for the Dutch East India Trading Company in 1609, the Bay is today one of the most important navigational channels in the U.S. and the 2nd busiest waterway after the Mississippi River.  The Upper Bay is connected to the Chesapeake by the C&D Canal, the next leg of your journey.

              The C&D Canal is 14 miles long and is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  As early as the 17th Century, proposals were made to connect the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay to expedite the transportation of goods.  After several false starts and redesigns, construction began in 1824. The route went from Delaware City to the Back Creek Branch of the Elk River, Maryland using 4 locks.  For the next several years 2,600 men dug with picks and shovels through marshy swamps for an average daily salary of 75 cents.  The work was back-breaking and dangerous, with unstable ground creating numerous mudslides.  Finally in 1829, the canal was completed for a total cost of $3.5 million dollars, the most expensive canal project of its time.

              Through the 19th Century the canal continued to move passengers and freight, with cargo tonnage peaking at 1.3 million tons.  However, loss of water within the locks continued to plague the operation.  Steam operated pumps were installed to lift water into the locks, but as ships became larger with deeper drafts, traffic slowed and profits declined.  It became apparent that a larger, wider canal was necessary.  In the mid 1920’s all locks were removed and the canal was converted to sea level.  The new canal opened in 1927.

              Improvements continued to be made, until today, the canal is a modern, electronically controlled waterway.  Tugs, barges, cargo ships, cruise ships and pleasure boats can be found riding the 2-5 knot currents.  Vessels 100 tons or more must use a pilot to transit the canal.  As a ship passes Lewes, DE, a Delaware River and Bay Pilot will board and guide the vessel up the bay and into the canal to Chesapeake City.  Here, a “changing of pilots” takes place and a Maryland Pilot takes over.  To do this, a pilot launch maneuvers alongside the vessel as it continues to move.  The pilot uses the ship’s gangway, Jacobs Ladder or port entrance to climb aboard or exit. The Maryland Pilot will guide the ship to Baltimore or Annapolis.  All canal operations are controlled from a two story white frame building in Chesapeake City, using state–of-the-art fiber optic links to closed circuit TV’s and radio systems.   

              So, now you have reached Chesapeake City, a quaint little town whose history is tied directly to the canal.  The town began as Bohemia Village with 2 pre-Revolutionary buildings, Chick’s Tavern House and a brick house for collecting tolls.  As the canal grew, the town grew, reaching a population of 400 and changing its name to Chesapeake City in 1839.  A drawbridge spanned the canal connecting the north and south sides of town.  In 1942 the bridge was destroyed when the tanker “Franz Klasen” struck it. Amazingly no one was injured on the bridge or the ship, but the closing of the bridge halted all traffic between the two sides of the city.  In 1949, a new bridge was completed, but that didn’t solve the woes of Chesapeake City.  While it was a financial boon for the canal, the bridge was so long and high that cars drove right over the city without ever noticing it or stopping.  Businesses began to fail and families moved out.  The city continued to decline until, finally, a group of concerned citizens began a concerted rejuvenation effort.

              Their dedication paid off.  The town now boasts a number of well- kept Victorian homes, antique and gift shops, Inns and B&B’s, restaurants and a marina.  Choose the Bayard House  with its waterfront dining and Eastern shore cuisine, or The Tap Room, famous for its crabs.  For more casual fare, try the Bohemia Café.  Be sure to stop by the Chesapeake Inn and Restaurant with its 60 slip marina, Tiki Bar and live music.  You can’t go wrong with any of the eclectic eateries in town.  Eat, drink, shop, stroll and plan your next day’s trip to the Chesapeake Bay!