The James River and Kanawha Canal

25 Aug

The James River and Kanawha Canal was to have been the key to Virginia becoming the economic center of the emerging United States in the late 1700’s. The project was envisioned by George Washington who surveyed and planned for the canal. In 1785, the James River Company was formed. A name change would create the James River and Kanawha Canal Company.

1865_James_River_and_Kanawha_canal

The purpose of the canal was to create a way to ship goods and people inland from Richmond. The hope was to connect the James River with the Kanawha River (in present day West Virginia) that would then connect to the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and finally to the Gulf of Mexico.

The problems began almost immediately. Floods and a shortage of funds hindered progress considerably. By 1790, a seven mile stretch from Richmond to Westham had opened. The War of 1812 caused it to slow as did the construction through the Piedmont’s rocky terrain. In 1820, the Commonwealth of Virginia took over the project and by 1825 the canal had reached Maidens Adventure in Goochland.  By 1851, the canal reached its furthest point, Buchanan, 196.5 miles west of Richmond.

lockkeepers

The Lock-keepers House at Cedar Point

The canal met further delays during the Civil War when goods and people were not moving. Following the Civil War, the final blow to the canal came with the completion of railroad service to the Ohio River. In 1878, the James River and Kanawha Canal Company gave up and sold its towpaths to the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad Company. Turning basins, towpaths, and lock-keepers houses began to disappear with the rise of the locomotive.

Genito Culvert

Genito culvert

Beginning in the late 20th century there was a renewed interest in the old canal. In 1971, a 138 acre James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District was created. Richmond has a Canal Walk that stretches for 1.25 miles and Scottsville has a wonderful Canal exhibit. Goochland has the last remaining Lock-keepers house which was built in 1836 to serve Lock Number 7 at Cedar Point. There are also still a few culverts and aqueducts hidden in the woods along the old towpath which itself can still be seen in several places alongside of River Road West. Possibly one day Goochland itself will have a Canal Park to commemorate the part it once played in Washington’s great vision.

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