McNown on Canals

Before the 16th century the most efficient way to transport materials was by natural waterways. However, these rivers or streams were non-navigable at some points thus transport was impossible. During the 16th century, European engineers began to expand the waterway network. They started by removing obstacles and digging canal loops around rapids or the obstacles. McNown writes at the beginning of the 17th century, there were 650 miles of navigable waterways and by 1760 there were over 1,200 miles of navigable waterways.

Later in the writing McNown explains what a barge canal is like. Barge canals were trapezoidal in shape and the bottom width was from 20 to 25 feet while they were only 3 to 4 feet deep. The trapezoidal shape helped to minimize the erosion of the shore. These canals were built on relatively flat ground and the contour changed when there was a change in elevation. To get up to the higher elevations a chamber in the canal needed to be constructed. The chamber would be filled with water up to the level of the canal above or emptied down to the level of the canal below.

In America, the canals were built to tap natural resources in the interior of the country, to reduce the length of voyages along the coast. McNown states that before the War of 1812 “many men of vision recognized the advantages of connections with the interior of the new nation. The United States was relatively large compared to the nations in Europe. On July 4, 1828 a ceremony was held to inaugurate the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. This canal linked the Washington and Baltimore through the Potomac river. The canal was a total of 186 miles. By 1834, 107 of the total 186 miles had been completed. However, the state of Maryland ran into some financial trouble had had to take a $3 million loan from the federal government.

This map shows the different roads, canals, and railroads in early America.

*365 words*

At the same time that this canal was being constructed, railroads were starting to become increasingly popular and by 1831, 100 miles of railroad were across the United States, but by 1840 it had increased to 3,000 miles compared to 3,600 miles of canals.

Here is a short video explaining the rise of railroads and canals.

This link provides you with a comparison between railroads and canals. The article does a great job describing the differences between the two different systems of transportation as well as listing the pros and cons for each of them.

5 Replies to “McNown on Canals”

  1. The link comparing canals and railroads was especially apt considering that McNown’s article seems to discuss how waterways were the fastest way to travel than by over land. As I was reading through McNown’s article one thing that caught my eye was the fact that one sixth of all the freight in the United States was transported through inland waterways in 1976, the year this article was published. I was curious as to how these numbers are affected in modern times especially with the greater use of air transport and I was curious as to how this would be affected in modern times. I could not find much for air travel compared to railroad or waterways, but I did find a site that had a ton of data related to transportation and a useful map that depicts the load of each transportation method as well as the track it follows. Unsurprisingly, truck transport through interstate highways seems to have the most presence on the map, but waterways and railroads still seem to be used extensively, especially for larger loads.

  2. I love the second link, it really helps you understand the specific differences between canals and railroads, providing insight as to why more railroads were constructed than canals. It is intriguing, though, that despite how much cheaper it was to just dig up canals such as the Erie, the push west really propelled the construction of railroads across the country.

  3. The link to the 1858 (yes, 1858!) article in the Scientific American is wonderful. It shows that, even as railroads had been running for a while, people still realized that canals served important economic and political needs–and at very affordable costs!

  4. This post is interesting because, while it focuses on the history of canals in the US, canals have been around for much longer yet developed for the same reasons. China, for example, has had the Grand Canal, which linked the Huang He and the Yangtze river, for over a thousand years. The reason for the Chinese investing over so much into canals have parallels to the Americans. Both China during its history and America contained vast territories and, in order to maintain a government and support and economy, the quickest way to transport goods to the more populated coastal cities is necessary. Furthermore, the Chinese also had to encounter the problem of changing elevation and developed their on water lock system to raise boats in the 10th century and I think its interesting the Americans did the same.

  5. Thank you for doing a great job at summarizing this article for us Jacob. Your summary, I feel is very helpful because you picked important topics to summarize, for example, when you are talking about the barge canals in your second paragraph (e.g. what they are, how they are made). The way you described them was short and simple to understand, all of this combined with your two links made it a great summary. As a side note, in your ending when you wrote about how railroads grew from 100 miles to 1,000 miles in just 9 years, actually shocked me when I read it.
    The link above is useful if anyone reading this wants to learn more about early railroad development in the United States.

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