Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C & D Canal)

The 14-mile long Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (C & D Canal) crosses the northern Delaware/Maryland peninsula, and its eastern mouth is at Reedy Point, Delaware, on the Delaware River, with its western mouth at Chesapeake City, Maryland, on Chesapeake Bay. The name of the canal reflects the names of the two water bodies that it connects.


Map image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This canal is a very interesting facility. I read a book about the canal years ago, and it said that it is one of the few fully sea-level shipping canals in the world. The original C & D Canal was built privately in the 1820s, and it opened for business in 1829, and it had 10 feet of water depth, and it had four locks and it carried barges and sailing vessels that were towed by teams of mules and horses. These stated channel depths are as measured below the average low tide water level. The canal was purchased by the U.S. government in 1919, and there were several expansions of the canal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (US ACE) over the years. In the 1920s, the canal was excavated and deepened to create a sea-level facility with a channel 12 feet deep and 90 feet wide, with no locks, completed in 1927. From 1935 to 1938, the canal channel was deepened to 27 feet of water depth and widened to 250 feet, with another project to provide same-draft access to the C & D Canal from Chesapeake Bay, which expanded a federal navigation channel for 26 miles, to 27 feet deep and 400 feet wide.

By the mid 1970s, further deepening/widening projects increased the channel depth to 35 feet of water depth, with the channel width increased to 450 feet, which is adequate for two-way traffic for most oceangoing ships. The upper Chesapeake Bay dredged channel was also deepened to 35 feet deep, in conjunction with the last set of projects. Even though Delaware is relatively flat, the canal did cut through a "ridge" about 60 feet above sea level, and the last expansion project required an enormous amount of excavation. The C&D Canal provides a shortcut of about 300 miles for ship traffic between the Port of Baltimore, and the northeastern U.S. cities and Europe. The C & D Canal is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering landmark. The C & D Canal is the only major commercial canal in the U.S. that is still in use, among those which were built during the heyday of canal building in the early 1800s. The C & D Canal is also the site of 6 large bridges that were built for the specific purpose of crossing the canal with 5 highway crossings and 1 railroad crossing. The C & D Canal also has hiking and bicycle trails along the shoreline of most of the canal's length.


DE-1 C & D Canal Bridge. Looking northbound, taken February 1996 by DelDOT. Photo image cropped by Scott Kozel. This photo depicts well the portion of the canal where the original terrain was about 60 feet above sea level.

The C & D Canal is administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and they have an excellent website about the history and the operation of the canal,
The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Quotes from the US ACE article (blue text): Welcome to one of only two commercially vital sea-level canals in the United States. The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal runs 14 miles long, 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep across Maryland and Delaware, connecting the Delaware River with the Chesapeake Bay and the Port of Baltimore. The C&D Canal is owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District. The project office in historic Chesapeake City, Md., is also the site of the C&D Canal Museum and Bethel Bridge Lighthouse.

Today's canal is a modern sea-level, electronically controlled commercial waterway, carrying 40 percent of all ship traffic in and out of the Port of Baltimore.


St. Georges Bridge, 4-lane US-13. Looking northbound, taken by DelDOT in August 1997. Photo image cropped by Scott Kozel. The C & D Canal splits in two the town of St. Georges, Delaware.


C & D Canal at Chesapeake City, Maryland. MD-213 crosses the 2-lane bridge, which has 135 feet of vertical navigational clearance above the average high tide water level. Photo image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


C & D Canal at Summit Bridge, Delaware. US-301 crosses the 4-lane bridge, which has 135 feet of vertical navigational clearance above the average high tide water level. Photo image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Following 3 photos by Scott Kozel, July 2003.

C & D Canal, several miles west of St. Georges, looking east from the south bank.
C & D Canal, several miles east of Summit, looking east from the south bank. The bridge carries the Norfolk Southern Corporation railroad over the canal. In 1966, this railroad liftspan bridge over the canal was completed by US ACE and transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad to carry freight trains across the canal. The present level of waterway traffic versus railroad traffic is such that the bridge is kept in the open position, and closed for train movements.
C & D Canal, near St. Georges, looking east from the south bank. This is a long range view of the two highway bridges at St. Georges, the DE-1 superhighway bridge in the foreground and the US-13 bridge in the background. Large image (241 kilobytes)

The Delaware Passenger Rail Engineering Study, published January 15, 2002, has details about the clearance and operation of the railroad bridge. Excerpt (in blue text):
The moveable bridge is a single-track lift bridge, completed in 1966, with manual signals governing operations over the bridge. A local Bridge Tender controls the movable section of the bridge. The closed (lowered) bridge clearance is 45 feet above mean high water (MHW). When full open (raised), clearance is 133 feet MHW, and it is raised an additional five feet (called "high lift" position) in a second step. It takes approximately six minutes to raise the bridge to high lift.

The bridge must be open for passage of nearly all commercial vessels, including tugboats and ships. It must also be open for passage of private and recreational vessels requiring clearance. Local traffic, whether commercial or private vessels, typically call the bridge before arriving on VHF Channel 13. Sailboats of about 32 feet and larger require the bridge to be open, and are common during the spring, summer, and fall.

The present level of waterway traffic versus railroad traffic is such that the bridge is kept in the open position, and closed for train moves. The bridge is typically closed about six times per day for train movements. The Bridge Tender is required to notify the USACE dispatcher 30 minutes prior to closing the bridge.


USACE is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

C&D Canal Milestones

C & D Canal Milestones synthesis from the US ACE article follows.

Mid-1600s -- Augustine Herman, a Dutch envoy and mapmaker, observed that two large bodies of water, the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, were separated only by a narrow strip of land. Herman proposed that a waterway be built to connect the two, since the canal would reduce, by nearly 300 miles, the water routes between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Mid 1760s -- Surveys of possible water routes across the Delaware / Maryland Peninsula were performed.
1788 -- Regional business leaders, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, raise the issue of constructing the waterway.
1802 -- The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company was incorporated. More surveys followed.
1804 -- Construction of the canal began, including 14 locks to connect the Christina River in Delaware with the Elk River at Welch Point, Md. The project was halted two years later for lack of funds.
1822 -- The canal company was reorganized.
1823 and 1824 -- Two senior US ACE commissioned officer engineers assist civilian engineers in determining a canal route, and recommended a new route with four locks, extending from Newbold's Landing Harbor (now Delaware City, Del.), westward to the Back Creek branch of the Elk River in Maryland.
April 1824 -- Construction resumes, with about 2,600 men digging with pick and shovel, and hauling dirt from the ditch.
1829 -- C & D Canal Company announces that the waterway is open for business. The construction cost was almost $2.5 million, one of the most expensive canal projects of its era.
1829 to 1919 -- C & D Canal operational, with Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River connected by a navigation channel measuring nearly 14 miles long, 10 feet deep, 66 feet wide at the waterline and 36 feet wide along the channel bottom. A covered wooden bridge at Summit, Del., spanned the canal across the "Deep Cut," with a 250-foot-long span over the waterway. The bottom of the bridge was 90 feet above the channel bottom. Three other wooden swing bridges also crossed the canal. The 4 canal locks were at Delaware City, St. Georges, Del., and two at Chesapeake City, Md. The dimension of each lock was 100 feet long and 22 feet wide, and they were eventually enlarged to 220 feet in length and 24 feet in width. Teams of mules and horses towed the watergoing vessels the canal.
1919 -- Canal purchased by the Federal government for $2.5 million and designated the "Intra-coastal Waterway - Delaware River to Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Maryland". The canal infrastructure included six road bridges plus a railroad bridge owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. These bridges were replaced during the 1920s by four vertical lift-span bridges and a new railroad bridge.
1927 -- A set of upgrade projects was completed that year. The eastern canal entrance at Delaware City was relocated several miles south to Reedy Point, Del. The canal trench was excavated so that the waterway was converted to a sea-level operation, with the trench 12 feet deep and 90 feet wide. These upgrades cost $10 million.
1933 -- US ACE Philadelphia District takes over operation of the canal.
1935 to 1938 -- Canal channel excavated to be deepened to 27 feet and widened to 250 feet, and the project cost nearly $13 million. Another project to provide same-draft access to the C & D Canal from Chesapeake Bay, expanded a federal navigation channel to 27 feet deep and 400 feet wide for 26 miles.
1940s -- The two vertical liftspan road bridges at St. Georges and Chesapeake City, were knocked down by ship collisions, and were replaced with high-level bridges.
1954 -- U.S. Congress authorizes further expansion of the canal channel to 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep. The upper Chesapeake Bay dredged channel was also deepened to 35 feet deep. These improvements began in the 1960s and were completed in the mid-1970s.
1960 -- Summit Bridge completed, a high-level road traffic bridge over the canal.
1966 -- New railroad lift bridge over the canal completed by US ACE and transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad to carry freight across the canal.
1968 -- Reedy Point Bridge completed, a high-level road traffic bridge over the canal.
1960s to the mid-1970s -- Construction projects expand the canal channel to 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep. The upper Chesapeake Bay dredged channel was also deepened to 35 feet deep.

The US ACE completed a study in 1996 for a channel deepening project to 40 feet of water depth, and that would include not only the C & D Canal itself but also 36 miles of channel deepening for the dredged shipping channel in the upper Chesapeake Bay that connects to the C & D Canal. Both the canal and the Bay channel are currently 35 feet deep (channel depths are measured below the average low tide water level). As of 2004, two major factors have stalled the channel deepening projects; the recent downturn in the economy of the Port of Baltimore has reduced the economic need somewhat, and there are major environmental impacts to the Bay that would be caused by the dredging, and there is not sufficient consensus among the various stakeholders as to whether the costs (the financial construction costs plus the costs to the natural environment) of the projects are acceptable when compared to the economic benefits of the projects. Also, oceangoing ships with up to 40 feet of draft (depth below the waterline) can utilize the lower Chesapeake Bay to access the Port of Baltimore, since 40 feet is the ruling depth of the dredged channels that are along that route (much of that route is through water that is naturally deeper than 40 feet).

Quotes from the US ACE article (blue text):
A Corps feasibility study to investigate improvements for the canal and the Baltimore connecting navigation channels of Tolchester, Brewerton Eastern Extension and Swan Point was completed in December 1996 with the signing of the Chief of Engineers' report. The study, co-sponsored by the Maryland Department of Transportation, investigated deepening of the channel to 40 feet from its current 35 foot depth, plus additional navigation improvements and environmental initiatives. (NOTE: On Jan. 22, 2001, the Philadelphia District announced that this study was being suspended based on recent downturns in Port of Baltimore container ship traffic).

Links to My Related Articles

DE Route 1 - Korean War Veterans Highway - my article about the DE-1 superhighway between I-95 and Dover.

C & D Canal Bridges - my article with 3 photos of the DE-1 and US-13 C & D Canal bridges at St. Georges.

Links to External Websites

The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, official C & D Canal website by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, US ACE Philadelphia District.

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Projects, by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, US ACE Philadelphia District. Current projects and planning studies on the C & D Canal.

Bicycling on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, by BrokenClaw.com

Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, with good photo.

Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Still Moves the Goods, by Joe and Diane Devanney.

1874 Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company Map of Cecil County nearby Delaware, by Historical Society of Cecil County.

  

About Chesapeake City MD, by official Chesapeake City website. This has some information about the C & D Canal, plus a photo of the 1942 accident where a tanker destroyed the vertical lift bridge spanning the waterway, plus a photo of the replacement fixed high-level bridge which has 135 feet of vertical navigational clearance.

Delaware Highway Photos - Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Bridges, by AARoads.

Copyright 2003-2010 by Scott Kozel. All rights reserved. Reproduction, reuse, or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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By Scott M. Kozel, PENNWAYS, Roads to the Future

(Created 7-1-2003, last updated 7-5-2004, minor 5-30-2010)