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Mr. Latrobe’s Communication. - Albert Gallatin, Report of the Secretary of the Treasury; on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals 
Report of the Secretary of the Treasury; on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals; made in pursuance of a Resolution of the Senate, of March 2, 1807 (Washington: R.C. Weightman, 1808).
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Mr. Latrobe’s Communication.
Washington, March 16, 1808.
I HAVE the honor of your letter of the 29th of July, 1807, transmitting to me a copy of the resolution of the Senate of the United States, of the 2d of March, 1807, together with a list of queries respecting artificial navigations, and canals, to which you request my answer and opinion.
In order to give you all the information on this subject which you wish, and I possess, and in the most condensed form, I ask your permission to depart from the order which your questions demand, and after treating the subject generally, to enter upon an account of those works, in detail, with which my personal experience has made me more particularly acquainted.
The most striking circumstance in a view of the Atlantic states of the union, in relation to the improvement of their internal navigation, is the uniformity of the natural arrangement of their rivers and mountains, and that this arrangement differs from that of ever other country in which artificial navigation has been attempted.
In other countries the general course of the rivers is between the mountains, and along the vallies; in this, the general course of the rivers is across that of the mountains and of the vallies. Our mountains, from their termination to the south west in Georgia, hold a course to the east of north; the general direction of our principal rivers is to the east of south: and on inspection of the map, it will be observed, that as the direction of the mountains to the N. E. of the Delaware, becomes more easterly, so do our rivers acquire a more southern course, always crossing the mountains at nearly the same angle.
Our rivers may be divided into three classes;—
Primary rivers, that discharge their water immediately into the ocean. Of these the relative magnitude might berated, according to the surface they respectively drain; Secondary rivers, or such as fall into the first, above their tide water; and Creeks, properly so called, which rise below the falls of the first rivers, or rather collect the water of the level land below the falls, and discharge it into the tide waters.
Of our primary rivers, the Susquehannah is the principal. By a great degree of geographical injustice, this mighty river loses its name at the foot of its falls, and is called, the Chesapeake bay, from thence to the ocean; although its width compared with its length, forbids the term of bay to be applied to what is called the Chesapeake. All of these rivers cross in the greatest part of their course the direction of the mountains. Of the secondary rivers, many of which are of great importance and magnitude, some and perhaps the greatest number hold a course parallel to the mountains, as the Shenandoah, the Conogocheague, the Lehigh, &c. draining the vallies, and receiving away the torrents of the mountains.
The third order of our water courses rise either in the lowest ridge of our hills, which I will call the granite ridge, and over which all our principal rivers, from Georgia to the Hudson, fall, and then run through the alluvial country which lies between the granite ridge and the ocean. Such rivers are, the Nottoway, the Blackwater, the Meherrin, the Annacosta, (eastern branch of Potomac) the Elk river, and the very important creek in the state of Delaware, the Christiana; or they are merely drains of the alluvial country, assuming an appearance of importance below the head of the tide, above which they are mere torrents, almost dry in the autumn. Such streams are all the rivers of the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, and of the lower part of the Jerseys, and innumerable water courses, forming large estuaries in the southern states.
Our great north western lakes, from their first source to the eastern end of lake Erie, may be considered as part of the great river St. Laurence, following the direction of the rest of our rivers, until opposed by the northern extremity of the Allegheny. From thence its course follows the valley west of the Allegheny, through lake Ontario to the ocean, receiving the waters of the northern extremity of the mountain in its course.
This general view of the construction of our country was necessary in order to understand the general principles on which our artificial navigation can be so conducted, as to be useful, or even practicable; and to explain why connections of waters, which on the map appear advantageous and feasible, would be useless, and perhaps impracticable, by any effort of art.
Two principal objects will dictate all the exertions towards the improvement of our internal navigation, which can for many years to come be attempted: 1. To carry our produce by water to the nearest port for its exportation, and the importation of foreign articles: 2. To exchange by internal commerce the articles reciprocally deficient on lines parallel to the sea coast. Canals, the use of which arises from manufacturing activity, will not probably be soon required.
The first object,—as all our principal rivers run seaward, and generally by the shortest course,—must be attained by the natural or improved navigation of the rivers themselves, or by cannals cut parallel to them: the second may often require a navigation parallel to the vallies, so as to communicate one principal river with another.
The former attempt at improved navigation has already been made on many of our principal rivers,—the latter has been seldomer undertaken; and only once above the falls of both primary rivers, in the canal intended to join the Susquehannah and Schuylkill, and the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers above Philadelphia.
The general construction of our country opposes to artificial navigation, in either of these directions, difficulties, which in no part of the world exist in so uniform, and certain a degree. Canals parallel to our rivers, have three formidable obstacles to encounter and overcome.
1. The rapid descent of the ravine cut through the mountains by the river itself, along which the canal must be carried;—or, if the ravine be quitted, difficulties on the high levels, which, the further you go from the river, are always intersected by the more numerous ravines; and embarrassed by the difficulty of returning to the ravine of the river.
2. The invariably rocky nature of the ground, which is uniformly of granite in all its varieties; and has numerous fissures which carry off the water, and require lining.
3. The difficulty of keeping off the land water, and of crossing the lateral branches and torrents of the river.
On the other hand, canals parallel to our mountains must necessarily cross the ridge or spur of the mountain which divides the waters of two primary rivers. On this ridge above the falls, the water requisite to supply the canal, is always scanty, often there is none: and though a tunnel or a stream engine, or in the last resort a rail road, are certain means of obviating the difficulty, they are expensive, inconvenient and imperfect. Below the granite ridge, the difficulty is less. There may always be found a supply of water from the ridge itself, and the feeders, though carried through rocky and expensive ground, are themselves useful as small canals, as far as they extend; and below the ridge the soil is easily cut and embanked.
Having so frequently mentioned the granite ridge, I will here trace its extent as far as my knowledge of our country enables me to do it.
The granite ridge forms the shore of the north side of Long island opposite to the island of New York. All the south of the island is alluvial, and is the first margin of alluvial soil below the granite ridge. This margin of alluvial soil beginning at Long island, widens as it extends to the south west, until in Georgia it becomes more than 200 miles in width.
Staten island and Bergen point, are two spurs of this same ridge, which continues nearly in the line of the post road to Trenton, where the river Delaware falls over it, having worn down the rocks more deeply there than many other of our rivers. The Delaware runs in its general direction for 60 miles under the ridge as far as New Castle, leaving it only for a short distance at particular bends of the river. At Philadelphia the ridge crosses the peninsula to Gray’s ferry on Schuylkill. The softer granite of Schuylkill has been worn down so that the falls are 4 miles from its lower edge. From Philadelphia the ridge runs with the post road to Havre de Grace, where it is visible on both shores, although the tide extends 6 miles above, to the foot of the falls.
The Susquehannah, by the name of the Chesapeake, may be considered as running under the foot of the granite ridge almost as far as Baltimore, which city is built upon the foot of the ridge. At the river Patuxent, on the post road, the ridge appears again, but is lost under the incumbent soil, and is not again visible until it appears at Georgetown. The harder granite of the Potomac has resisted the force of the water more than the granite further to the north-east, and the tide reaches only 3 miles above its outrunnings. From the Potomac, the falls of Rappahannoc at Fredericksburgh, of James river at Richmond, Appomatox at Petersburg, Roanoke at Halifax, beyond which point my personal observation does not extend, point out the course of this ridge in a line nearly parallel to the Blue ridge, diverging to the eastward as it extends southward.
Of the improvement of the natural navigation of our rivers leading to the sea, and of canals cut parallel to them.
The difficulties of the natural navigation of our rivers are: In spring,—the danger of wreck in the wild water of our rapids; in autumn,—obstructions created by rocky shoals; and, in most of them, rapids and falls impracticable at all times. The least expensive and most obvious means of removing the former are the blowing of the most prominent rocks, so as to straighten the channel, and procure a passage at low water. This has in almost all our rivers been attempted on a greater or less scale, and with various degrees of success. When injudiciously performed, and in rivers of rapid descent, and liable to great variation in the quantity of their water, more injury has been done than advantage obtained. Many of our worst obstructions act as natural dams, which holding up the water, create a large extent of excellent navigation above them. Of this the James river above Westham, and the Susquehannah above Chickisalunga and Hunter’s falls, are instances in point. Such obstructions when removed, let down the water rapidly from above, without supplying deeper navigation below.
In a river of such magnitude as the Susquehannah, indeed, no gap or sluice artificially cut, can materially affect the rapidity of the stream, but in lesser rivers, great care is required, not only to prevent lowering the water above, but to avoid giving a new direction to the current, more mischievous in its effects than that which has been changed. But with whatever judgment the natural navigation of a river perplexed by rapids and shoals may be conducted, and however its descent may be thereby facilitated, its ascent cannot possibly be rendered more easy, in the same degree. Thus for instance, although by the monies expended by the state of Pennsylvania and the Susquehannah canal company, on the natural navigation of the Susquehannah below Wright’s ferry, it has been rendered much less dangerous to run down the distance of 41 miles, almost the whole of which is a tremendous rapid, from Columbia to the tide, and thereby to carry lumber, iron, and agricultural produce to Havre de Grace, and thence to Baltimore,—yet so difficult is the upstream navigation by the same route, even with the assistance of the Susquehannah canal, that the returns in imported articles have been generally purchased in Philadelphia and conveyed to Columbia or Middletown, above the rapids, by the Lancaster turnpike, thence to be boated to the country watered by the upper branches of the Susquehannah. And although the Philadelphia market has hitherto offered more advantages to the buyers of imported goods than that of Baltimore, yet the expense of transporting them 72 miles by land to Columbia, would, if there were a good navigation from Havre de Grace upwards, destroy this advantage.
The difficulty of carrying canals parallel to our great rivers, the scarcity of engineers possessing knowledge and integrity, the want of capital, and above all the erroneous dread of bold measures, and the fear of uselessly expending money in works hitherto unknown among us, has deterred those interested in improving our navigation, from deserting the beds of our rivers, while it was practicable to keep them. They have therefore had recourse to canals only where navigation was otherwise impossible; where obstructed by rocks, or broken by a cascade.
There cannot however be a reasonable doubt, that if in England, where, compared with the United States, the quantity of water in the rivers varies little between the driest and the wettest period of the year, a canal running parallel to a river, furnishes a much more certain and safe and equal and cheap navigation than the river itself—it is infinitely more the case here. Unfortunately those of our canals which have been cut to pass the rapids and falls of our rivers, partake in a great measure of the inconveniences of the rivers themselves; some wanting water when the river is low, some incapable of being entered excepting at a particular height of the water in the river, some subject to constant accumulation of bars, and all of those with which I am acquainted, much less useful than the money expended on them ought to have made them.
Those canals, of which I now particularly speak, are, the James river canal, the Potomac canal, the Conewago, and Susquehannah canals. Of the canals north of the Delaware, and south of Virginia, I have not sufficient knowledge, nor can I speak of the Appomattox canal. It is, I believe, not liable to the same strictures in all points, which I shall make upon the others, but though I am well acquainted with the ground, I have not seen the manner in which the work has been executed.
One great and fatal error has been interwoven into the scheme of the other canals, excepting only that of the Potomac: They have been dug as much with a view to the erection of mills, as to the purposes of navigation. To fit them for mill-races, their descent is rapid, and their current strong. They are liable, of course, to the variation of the quantity of water in the river; they bring down with their current, the alluvium of the river; bars are formed in them, as well by this alluvium, as by the land wash; and their banks, where they are not of rock, or walled, are liable to perpetual wear by the current. The canal is, besides, itself an inconvenient rapid to those who would ascend it.
Besides these inconveniencies, the contracts binding the company to furnish to the millers the water, when it rises above a certain gage-selle, for an annual rent, or on other fixed and permanent terms, tie the canal company to the original construction of the work, and forbid future improvement. For instance, if a lock were found to be useful above the highest mill, it could not be erected, because it would rob the mills below of their stipulated water; the inclination of the canal cannot be lessened, because it would have the same effect. In the James river canal, more than in any other which I have seen, this error, though now generally considered as a very great advantage, will at some future period be discovered and deplored. The Potomac canal, more especially that of the Little falls, has the same defect of a too rapid descent, although the object of a mill race is placed by their charter out of view. But its principal defect is of another kind, to which that of James river is also, but in a less degree, subject. It receives the wash of all the hills and ravines of the north bank, which ought to be discharged through culverts, or carried over bridges: and that legislative impartiality which has required the canal to enter the river at the very head of the tide, in order that Virginia may have an equal chance of becoming the depot of its commerce with Maryland, has very much injured its utility to the country at large.
In a still greater degree than the Potomac canal the Susquehannah canal, beginning at the Maryland and Pennsylvania line, and ending at the head of the tide, has the defect, not only of receiving the landwash of the hills and ravines, but also two considerable rivers, the Conewingo and Octorara, partaking this of all the danger arising from their inundations, and receiving their alluvium. This canal is also applied to the purposes of a mill race. Other inconveniencies attend it, which arise from the most unfriendly nature of the river, and the local feelings of the state legislatures of Pennsylvania and Maryland, at the period of the incorporation of the company.
The Conewago canal, about 50 miles highe up the Susquehannah, is also a mill race, and is the property of an individual. It is of difficult entrace, which is to be regretted, as it ought to be the mans of passing a short but very dangerous fall of the river, which interrupts along extent of very good navigation.
Having thus pointed out the general and common defects of these canals, to which I may add the general want of proper slopes to their banks, I will now enter upon the very thankless task of giving an honest opinion respecting them in detail, viewing only the public interests, and perfectly conscious of the bearing of what I shall say, upon private feelings. These feelings, however, are extremely short-sighted; for nothing could be more advantageous to the individuals most interested, than those measures which would most benefit the public.
The James river and Appomattox canals stop short of tide water. The most important of these canals is that of James river. Upon the coal mines of James river our Atlantic sea ports will soon become dependent for their chief supply of fuel. That dependence exists already in respect to the fuel required for a variety of manufactures, and even now the smiths within 10 miles of our sea ports, require in order to carry on advantageous business, a supply of Virginian coal. There are three means (and I think only three)—by which the Virginian coal can be brought to the tide: 1. By a small canal and rail roads, immediately from the mines south of the river to the shipping tide water at Ampthill or its neighbourhood, along the valley of Falls creek: distance, I believe, 20 miles. This is a route easily practicable and at a moderate expense, for Falls creek rises in the coal mines themselves. 2. By the turnpike road to Manchester opposite Richmond. This road has been sometime completed, and is of the highest utility. 3. By James river to the head of the falls, and thence by the canal to Richmond. This is for two thirds of the coal country, the best and most obvious route. For from all the mines the coal may easily be brought to the river on rail roads, and thence boated, independently of the cheaper conveyance which Tuckahoe creek might be made to yield to a great extent of coal land now little worked. But of what adequate use is this navigation in boats carrying at an average 200 bushels of coal only, when, if the canal were well constructed, 1000 bushels might be as easily and cheaply conveyed; and when, on their arrival in Richmond, they must be unloaded, again loaded into carts and carried down by a bad road to the tide at Rockets, to be shipped? The Manchester turnpike, with all its expense of waggons, horses, and drivers, and the consequent waste of labor, capital, food, and forage, is a better, and I am told, as cheap a mode of conveyance.
The means by which the canal itself may be made much more useful, I will not consume your time and patience in detailing; what is most important, taking the whole subject into view, is to connect the canal, such as it is, with the tide.
In the year 1796, Mr. Weston, then engineer to the western navigation companies of the state of New York, was called to Richmond to give his advice and opinion on this subject. It amounted to this: to connect the basin with the foot of the falls, by a succession of ten or eleven locks in one tier, carrying the race of Ross’s mill upon an aqueduct across the canal at the foot of the locks. With all deference to his talents, I cannot help remarking, that of all expensive projects of which I ever heard, this would have been one of the most useless. For independently of the excessive inconvenience and detention which such a tier of locks at the most busy part of a navigation would occasion, the boats would arrive at their foot, in a very considerable rapid, now impracticable, and which could only be made practicable by blowing up the rocky bed of the river. When arrived there, two miles of tide water must be encountered; to navigate which, these boats are wholly unfit. I cannot help thinking that the present mode of conveying the coal to Rockets is not much less eligible. I refrain from stating many other objections, which are professional, and which I believe were, as well as those already mentioned, as evident to Mr. Weston as to myself; but objections of another nature, more powerful than mere physical difficulties, opposed every project excepting that which he proposed.
In order to connect the basin of the James river canal with the tide, a very simple means is offered by the nature of the ground. To do this it will be necessary to form a capacious basin at Rockets, communicating with the tide by one or more locks. To carry a canal from thence along the level bank of James river to Shockoe creek. A cheap aqueduct of one arch of 30 feet span will carry the work across the creek into the back street. The canal will then go up the back street, mounting by successive locks, not more than two in each tier, into the basin. The canal from Rockets to the basin on Shockoe hill, should be of 9 feet draft of water, and the locks 100 feet long and 18 feet wide. This canal would of course bring vessels which navigate our coasts and bays and run out to the West India islands, into the basin on Shockoe hill.
The legislature of the state of Virginia, (for the commonwealth is deeply interested in the stock) has from time to time expressed great anxiety on the subject of completing this canal. But the dread of unforeseen difficulties and risks in carrying the work below the basin, and the value and productiveness of the stock in its present state, have hitherto overbalanced this anxiety. But considering Richmond as the principal source of fuel to the cities on our sea coast, at least until the mines of cape Breton shall supply us, I feel a national sentiment in deeply regretting the very fatal policy which maintains and supports the error, and the mutilation of this most important work. I will not at the same time deny, that when it is considered that those who projected and executed the canal were men of no acquaintance either with general science, or with this particular branch of art, and knew nothing of canals but from books or hearsay, they have already done wonders. They deserve the thanks of their state, and of the union. But the work should not stop where they have left it. Nature, has perhaps, done more for Richmond than for any scite where a city has been planted. For 10 miles above the city on both sides, and upon several islands of the stream, there are innumerable mill seats, supplied by one of the noblest rivers in the union. Immediately above the head of the falls lies an inexhaustible treasure of coal. Every art and manufacture to which human ingenuity can employ fire and water, may be here carried on with the least expense. From above, an easy and wide spreading navigation, collects on this spot all the raw materials which our climate can produce; below, a river capable of bearing sea vessels sufficient for every trade, but that across the ocean, is ready for the exportation of its merchandize. The town itself is placed on a healthy and commanding ground. But to improve these advantages to the utmost extent to which our population is equal, nothing would so much contribute as the completion of the Richmond canal.
I have dwelt specially on the coal trade to which this canal is subservient, as of first rate national importance. It is of no less importance to the state of Virginia as a means of conveyance of agricultural produce. As you will receive an answer in detail to your queries relative to the amount of all the sorts of produce carried upon it, and of its actual trade, I will not add any thing further to what I have already said on the subject, but to observe,—that at some distant period, the Chickahominy, a river rising in the coal country, and discharging itself into James river NA miles below Richmond, where ships may take in their cargoes, offers a means of carrying down the coal destined for distant exportation.
A canal has often been projected for passing the falls of the Rappahannoc at Fredericksburg. There is no reasonable hope, however, that this work can soon be executed. The ravine of the river at the falls on either side is so abrupt, rocky, and irregular that great expense must be incurred to effect it,—an expense not likely to be repaid by its trade for many years.
A canal to connect the Rappahannoc with the Potomac, a few miles below Fredericksburg, across the northern neck, has also been spoken of. It would be a highly useful work, but would require a tunnel of 2 or 3 miles. I believe it could be executed at an expense not greater than the tolls would remunerate. Such a canal, however, does not belong to the class of which I am now speaking.
The Potomac canal consists of two parts,—one to pass the Great falls 14 miles above Georgetown,—the other to pass the Little falls. The errors committed in the construction of the work have been enumerated above. The trade of this canal, especially during the year 1807, has been so great, that there appears every prospect of its becoming a productive work,—in those years in which there is a considerable and equal quantity of water in the river. But upon this circumstance it must always depend. The information respecting it, which can be obtained from the company, on the spot, renders it unnecessary for me to say more upon it.
No attempt at the improvement of the navigation of any of the rivers of Maryland between the Susquehannah and the Potomac, has been made, nor is there in the prospects of advantage to be derived from the navigation of the two Patuxents, the Patapsco, or any of the lesser rivers falling into the Chesapeake, any thing which could at present tempt capital into such an undertaking.
But the Susquehannah itself has been for many years the object of almost all the attention directed in the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania to the improvement of our internal navigation. About 6 miles above Havre de Grace, this mighty river meets the tide. The place is now known by the name of Smith’s ferry. The map of the river from thence up to Wright’s ferry (Columbia) in Pennsylvania, which I made in the year 1801, when directing the works carried on for the improvement of the natural bed of the river, and which by favor of the governor of Pennsylvania, I am able to exhibit with this memoir, will explain the nature of this part of the river very minutely, being drawn to a very large scale. The whole of this extent is one tremendous rapid, which in fact continues to the N. W. side of the Chickalunga hills, 3 miles above Columbia. The rapid is not every where of equal velocity, or equally dangerous. Wherever the river crosses a valley of limestone or slate, the rocks are worn down into a smoother and wider bed: but when it has to cross a ridge of granite, its course is immediately broken by irregular masses and range of rocks; its bed is narrow and enclosed by precipices, and its torrent furious and winding.
The Chickisalunga falls can be descended without danger, and no attempt to open them has been thought necessary. The ridge of granite hills through which they break, bounds on the N. W. the beautiful limestone valley of Columbia. Across this valley the river runs rapidly, but smoothly. Another narrow ridge of granite hills crosses the river immediately below Columbia, over which the river falls rapidly, and then enters the wider limestone valley known by the name of the Jochara valley. The river spreads here to the width of three miles, its stream is gentle though rapid, and it abounds in beautiful and fertile islands. It then suddenly contracts and is received into the narrow ravine which it has sawed down in the granite hill called Turkey hill. From its first entrance into the Turkey hill, to the tide, there is no part that deserves the name of a sheet of smooth water. When the river is full, the whole ravine about half a mile in width contains only one furious torrent in which few rocks comparatively are to be seen above the water; but the danger is not the less, and very skillful pilots, and many and stout hands are required to carry a boat or an ark safely down. But in the autumn, and in a dry season, the river itself can for 6 miles scarcely be seen, and its bed appears a barren and dry waste of irregular rocks, among which the loud roaring of water is only heard: for, from the Turkey hill to near the mouth of Conestogo, the whole river is discharged through a channel generally about 60 feet wide, in the greatest part of which the depth and the rapidity of the torrent is such, that it has not been fathomed. About a mile below the mouth of Conestogo, a narrow limestone valley touches the river on the N. E. side, but on the west shore not a trace of Limestone is to be seen. Four miles below Burkhalter’s ferry, the river arrives at the high range of granite hills, abounding in copper, in which the gap mine is situated, and at a place called M‘Call’s ferry, it narrows to the width of 16 perches. Here I attempted to find bottom with a line of 180 feet, but failed, notwithstanding every precaution taken to procure a perpendicular descent of the weight attached to it. Through this pass the water is rapid, but smooth and safe. The river rises here rapidly and very suddenly after the fall of rain above; and it will never be possible to erect a safe bridge at this place, so often mentioned as the most practicable. The obstructions to navigation by 3 rapids below M‘Call’s, is not so considerable as to endanger the arks and boats that descend, until they arrive at the Baldfriar falls, below Peachbottom and about 8 miles above the tide. From M‘Call’s to the slate valley of Peachbottom, the river is filled with islands called the Bear islands. Across the valley of Peachbottom, and above the Baldfriar falls, the river is wide and safe. The best natural navigation, and that always pursued by boats descending by the natural bed of the river, is on the west side, from the foot of the bear islands. Above that point to Columbia, the best passage is on the east side. The most dangerous falls below Peachbottom were Amos’s and Hector’s falls, on which many wrecks annually occurred until the late improvements of the navigation were made.
From this description it may easily be imagined that if the descent of the river with boats loaded with produce was dangerous and difficult, the ascent was still more so. The natural obstructions were besides increased by fish-dams in every part of the river, and the rival interests of the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland prevented, for many years, every attempt at artificial improvement of the bed of the river. In the mean time each state took measures to go as far towards rendering the navigation of this river useful to their respective interests, as their means and limits would permit; and a company was incorporated in Maryland, to make a canal from the Maryland line to the tide, to pass all the obstructions of the river of the eight lowest miles; and in Pennsylvania two companies were also incorporated, the one to connect the Susquehannah with the Schuylkill, by a navigation taken out above all the dangerous falls, and the other to connect the Schuylkill with the Delaware. The objects of none of these companies were advantageously accomplished. The Susquehannah canal company have, however, completed a navigable canal, liable to the objections which I have above noticed. The Pennsylvania companies have made considerable progress in the works, under the direction of a very able engineer, Mr. Weston, but have not completed either canal so as to render them useful or productive.
At last, in the year 1801, the states of Maryland and Delaware having passed laws incorporating a company for the purpose of cutting a canal between the Chesapeake and Delaware, a former law of Pennsylvania, appropriating 10,000 dollars to the removal of obstructions in the Susquehannah, went into effect; and the late Colonel Fred. Antes, than whom no man was better fitted to accomplish its object, was charged with its execution. But he died on his arrival at the river, and the direction devolved upon me. The enclosed report to the legislature on this subject, details the extent of the work executed, and the principles on which I proceeded in the attempt to make a practicable and safe navigation both up and down the river. I will here only repeat that all my exertions were bent to force through all obstructions, a channel clear of rocks, of 40 feet wide, close to the Eastern shore, never leaving any rock upon which a vessel could be wrecked between the channel and the shore,—so that in the most violent freshes a boat should always be safe, by keeping close in shore. Rocks of immense magnitude were therefore blown away, in preference to the following a crooked channel more cheaply made, but more difficult and dangerous, and varying in safety and practicability, according to the degree of the rise of the river. There is however one part of the navigation in which the bed of the river must forever be pursued, namely, from the Indian steps above M‘Call’s to below the gap at M‘Call’s:—a part of the navigation, which, if art can conquer it, must be undertaken in a state of the country infinitely more abounding in wealth and population than at present.
Of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Having now answered that part of your inquiry which relates to the general subject of canals, I come to the particular merits of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal, of which you have requested me to give special information; together with my opinion on its location, unbiassed by any interests but those of the public.
The very able report of the committee to whom your letter to the president and directors of the company was referred, and who did me the honor to confer with me on the subject, conveys to you all the information which can be given of the history of the company, their pecuniary resources and difficulties, the motives that directed their choice in the location of the work, and the system under which it was begun and pursued. Every thing also that can be collected by the most indefatigable enquiry as to the probable proceeds of the canal, and the advantages it offers to those who have adventured in it, is also detailed; and there remains to me only the task of giving you that professional information, which as engineer to the company, I have obtained; and to explain to you the means of executing it, as far as they are determined by the nature of the soil and the levels of the country.
The alluvial land lying below that part of the granite ridge which crosses the peninsula from the ferry opposite to Havre de Grace, reaching the shores of the Delaware at Wilmington, may be considered as a regular inclined plane, sloping gradually to the south-east at the rate of about 6 inches in a mile. Immediately below the granite ridge,—that is, along the foot of Gray’s hill, Iron hill, and along the south bank of Christiana creek, which runs parallel to, and close under, the ridge,—its highest inequalties seldom exceed 80 feet, nor does the common surface fall below 70 feet above the tide of the Chesapeake at high water. This plane extends from the granite ridge to the ocean,—and the only considerable depressions to be found in it, are the beds of the land drains, which are worn down into it and produce the appearance of vallies; but there are no insulated hills whatever, and the vallies are merely depressions of the ground below the plane. Hence it is evident, that by going round the heads of the water courses, a line of canal may be found across the peninsula between any two points on the opposite bays, in which the variation of level on the summit will be very small, and that by making the bank out of the spoils of the cut, a canal may be made at the smallest possible expense of digging and removing earth, and at no expense whatever for works of masonry, excepting at each end, where the descent requires the construction of locks. For by following the ridge dividing the waters which drain into opposite creeks, the necessity of culverts and aqueducts may be wholly avoided. The soil is also of the kind most easily cut, being generally of a sandy loam on and near the surface, and beds of good clay are found in abundance for all purposes of puddling.
The advantage of so level and soft a surface for the cut is counterbalanced by the total absence of water to supply it. This circumstance is very important in determining the choice of the line of the canal, among so many that are equally praeticable; for as all its water must be brought from the higher grounds upon the ridge, its location ought to be as near to the ridge as possible, in order that the feeder being short, the leakage and evaporation of a long feeder may be avoided. The location of the two ends of the canal does not, however, entirely depend upon its general course along the summit; and a great variety of terminations have been proposed, as equally eligible, both on the Chesapeake and the Delaware side. The former, after long and careful examination, has been decided in favor of Welch point, where there has, within the memory of man, been no diminution in the depth of the water, which is below the deposit of alluvium from Elk creek, and where the water is so wide and so deep, as to furnish a very capacious basin for many years to come, for the inconsiderable land wash of Back creek and the small drains in the neighbourhood. But on the Delaware side much difference of opinion has prevailed. The summit level of the canal in every case must reach the principal road leading from Christiana bridge down the peninsula, near a tavern called the Bear. This place is only two miles distant from Hamburg or Red hook, on the bay of Newcastle, and a cheap and short cut might be made to either of these points, especially to Red hook, did not two considerations forbid it,—the broad and wild water of the bay, and its shallowness at a great distance from the shore, there being only 4 feet 6 inches at low water. Newcastle, is the next eligible point. Newcastle is situated on a prominent point, which is swept both by the flood and the ebb tide. There will therefore be always deep water at the outer wharves and piers at that place, and less than 21 feet has not been found on the outside of any of the piers lately erected; or formerly, and even at present, at the wharves, excepting only where the eddy occasioned by the piers has accumulated soft banks of mud.
There could not be a moment’s hesitation in fixing the termination of the canal at Newcastle, unless the following reasons should be thought to outweigh the advantages of the best water in the Delaware, and the shortest navigation across the peninsula, which this point offers. It is in the first place feared, that in time of war, when the canal would be invaluable as a means of conveyance of military stores and bodies of men, an enemy’s ship of war might destroy the works at Newcastle in a sudden incursion, and return to sea, before the mischief could be prevented. It is further urged, that the mouth of the canal on the river below the tide would be liable to be filled up, in a very short time, as are all places on the Delaware where there is an eddy.—And it is also alledged, that Newcastle is situated so far below Philadelphia (33 miles), that unless with a favorable wind, dull sailing vessels cannot reach Newcastle in one tide, when they might reach the mouth of Christiana, 4 miles higher up the river, and go up the creek with the flood.
The first argument, appears to me to be deserving of consideration in a national point of view, and a small fort would be necessary to defend the mouth of the works against an enemy who should attempt to land, to blow them up. But they could not be injured even by shells beyond the destruction of the gates, which a few hours could put again into repair. To obviate the second objection it would be necessary to place the tide lock as far out as possible, and to carry out and wharf the side of the canal below the lock as far into the river, as the most projected wharf. The line of the wharves is now limited to 600 feet beyond the lowest street, called Water street, and unless further protruded into the river by a law of the state, this distance presents no formidable difficulty to the work, and places the utmost extension of the wharves, beyond the present time. The third objection is not without foundation. But the narrow and crooked navigation of Christiana creek, presents infinitely more causes of delay than the distance of four miles in the bold navigation of the Delaware. There is however in these objections enough to render it an object of infinite importance both to the nation and to the company, to avail themselves of both the eastern terminations of the canal, and to make a cut also from the Bear to the Christiana creek, about three miles above Wilmington, on a line not altogether so favorable, nor so short as that to Newcastle, but presenting no difficulties of importance whatsoever. From the point (Mendenhall’s) at which the termination is proposed, 10 feet may be carried out to the river Delaware. The objections to this termination are: the tedious and very crooked navigation of the creek for seven miles to the Delaware. The drawbridge at Wilmington, which must be passed; but more than any other, the opposition of the tides of Delaware and Christiana creek. For if a boat comes into the canal at Welsh point at high water, and passes across in six hours, she will find half flood in Christiana, and must wait the ebb to go down. On her arrival in the Delaware in two and a half or three hours, she will have again to wait three or four hours for the flood to proceed to Philadelphia, or up the Brandywine to the celebrated mills, the interests of which are well worthy of attention. Whereas a vessel arriving at Newcastle and finding the flood tide running, which will always happen if she comes to Welch point with a flood tide, may at once proceed up the Delaware, or up the Brandywine or Christiana creek, without delay. It must also be mentioned, that without a favorable tide, it is difficult to work down the Christiana creek against the wind, which is always unfavorable in some reach or other of its crooked navigation, when on the contrary, there is ample room in the Delaware to use all advantages of wind and tide.
On the other hand, it must be urged in favor of Christiana creek, that there is navigable water for boats drawing 8 feet above the proposed termination of the canal, as far as Christiana bridge, and that the navigation may be pushed still higher;—that the little town of Newport is now the depot of the produce of a very extensive and fruitful country extending into Lancaster county, and is 20 miles nearer to Lancaster than Philadelphia, and that to connect so important a field of productive business immediately with the canal, it may be worth while to incur an encreased expense and some inconvenience and delay in the mere thoroughfare navigation: and it may be added, that the large fixed capital of the town of Wilmington, far exceeding that of Newcastle, demands from the good policy, as well as the good will of the company or the nation, some consideration.
Well aware of the thankless task of giving a decisive and honest opinion on either side, I content myself with furnishing the materials of determination to you, and proceed to describe the nature and principles of the work actually executed in the feeder, and proposed for the canal.
Between the waters of the Chesapeake and the Delaware there are three streams which, rising in the high land above the canal, may be brought down to it as feeders, the Christiana creek, the Whiteclay creek, and the Elk itself.
The Elk and the Whiteclay are nearly equal in the regular quantity of water they supply, the Christiana is both smaller and more irregular. The Elk descends in a very crooked and rapid stream, 84 feet in four miles from Elk forge to the tide near Elkton, and unites with the wide water of the Chesapeake at Turkey point. The ridge that seperates its waters from those of the Delaware terminates in a high insulated hill, called Gray’s hill, which is united to the high land by a low and narrow ridge, crossing the post road on the boundary line of Delaware and Maryland. The Christiana creek is the first water falling from the high land into the Delaware. It collects all the waters that fall round the high insulated hill called Iron hill, at the N. E. foot of which it turns to the N. E. and, running in that direction under the foot of the granite ridge into the Delaware, receives the Whiteclay, Redclay and Brandywine in its course, and also numerous land drains from the level land to the South East. Of these three streams it has been ascertained that they may all be brought to the canal, but the Elk with the least expense and the shortest cut. The vallies in which they all run having been worn in deep and rocky land, and branching into deep ravines, the beds of rapid rivulets, offer great difficulties to the work necessary to divert their course.
In the Elk feeder, the canal is cut in the rock for about half a mile; embankments are made across several vallies, but the principal difficulty and expense consisted in cutting through a tongue of high land called Bellhill, through which the digging is 30 feet for near half a mile, and again through the dividing ridge, to the depth of 25 feet for above half that distance; these two difficulties have been conquered. Another smaller hill remains to be cut through, but it may be avoided by a circuitous cut, much less expensive, but also much less eligible. On the Delaware side of the ridge, the feeder is cut through a swampy flat of more than a mile in length, while the descent is only six inches. The general elevation of this flat is 86 feet above the tide, and as the head of the feeder at Elk forge is only 84 feet, it could have little descent, and falls only 2 inches in a mile. It has on this account been made a spacious canal of 3 feet 6 inches water, 22 feet 6 inches on the surface, and 12 feet at the bottom, affording as far as it goes a good and valuable inland navigation. The feeder is 6 miles in length; at the end of 5 miles is a lock for the passage of boats, and a side cut to communicate with the reservoir. A contiguous valley offers the means of making a reservoir, of more than a hundred acres. It has been proposed to embank 30 acres for this purpose. The lock is of 10 feet lift. The reservoir will be level with the upper feeder, of course 10 feet above the level of the canal, and under such a head will give the canal a plenteous and rapid supply as it is wanted. Below the lock the feeder is 5 feet deep, and 27 feet on the surface of the water: it will join the canal about a mile west of Aikentown. In the construction of the feeder permanence has been a very principal consideration. All the culverts are of solid masonry; no land water can run into the cut; the banks are sloped as 2 to 3; the embankments are well puddled, and the piers of the bridges are of hewn stone.
From the description which I have given of the soil of the peninsula, it is evident that the amount of digging constitutes the chief expense of the canal. To lessen this amount and to shorten the canal, it is proposed to quit the level in three places, and to cross three land drains that lead into Christiana creek, one at Aikentown, and two between Aikentown and the Bear. Small aqueducts and short embankments only are necessary to effect this. If the canal should terminate at Newcastle, a narrow marsh must also be crossed,—if at Christiana, deeper cutting must be encountered.
But neither of these difficulties increase the expense of the canal more than $ 7,500 each, beyond that of the same length of the general cut.
On all other points the report of the committee furnishes ample information; and I will only add,—that neither in Europe, nor in our own country do I know a line of inland navigation, which by so short a distance, and at so easy an expense, unites such extensive and productive ranges of commercial intercourse.
With the highest respect,
|Rails delivered, 44 ton, at $ 80,||3,520|
|Levelling the road, very uncertain, but I will suppose as an average for levelling and filling in with good gravel or broken stone, $ 2 50 per perch, or per mile,||800|
|Timber and bedding at 50 per rail,||440|
|Incidents and superintendance,||240|
|For a set of returning ways,||5,000|
|Total per mile,||$ 10,000|
The carriages which travel on these roads may be of various dimensions, agreeably to the material to be conveyed, and the necessary angle of the road. They have low cast iron wheels fast upon the axle, which turns round. Thus, the two wheels on the axle making the same number of revolutions in the same space of time, the carriage necessarily goes straight forward, and cannot be thrown off the ways by any small obstruction on one side.
The principle upon which such astonishing loads may be drawn on the ways by a single horse, is the dimunition of friction in the greatest possible degree. On a good rail road, descending under an angle of only one degree, one horse may draw eight tons in 4 waggons of two tons each without difficulty. The astonishing loads drawn upon rail roads by single horses in England, have induced many of our citizens to hope for their early application to the use of our country. I fear this hope is vain, excepting on a very small scale, and that chiefly in the coal country near Richmond. For it is evident that upon a rail road no other carriage but that which is expressly constructed for the purpose, can be employed,—and that to render a rail road sufficiently saving of the expense of common carriage, to justify the cost of its erection, there must be a very great demand for its use. But the sort of produce which is carried to our markets is collected from such scattered points, and comes by such a diversity of routes, that rail roads are out of the question as to the carriage of common articles. Rail roads leading from the coal mines to the margin of James river, might answer their expense, or others from the marble quarries near Philadelphia to the Schuylkill. But these are the only instances within my knowledge, in which they at present might be employed.
There is, however, a use for rail roads as a temporary means of overcoming the most difficult parts of artificial navigation, and for this use they are invaluable, and in many instances offer the means of accomplishing distant lines of communication which might otherwise remain impracticable, even to our national resources, for centuries to come.