(WHTM) — If you’ve ever driven south from the Mason-Dixon Line along the Delmarva Peninsula, you’ve probably driven over the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. As the name suggests, this waterway connects the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. On Oct. 17, 1829, it first opened for commercial use.
The idea for the canal was first proposed in the 1600s by a Bohemian immigrant to Maryland, Augustine Herman. At the time, the only way for ships sailing from ports like Boston, New York, or Philadelphia to get to the port of Baltimore was to sail south along the Atlantic coast, enter the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at capes Henry and Charles, then sail back north again — a journey of about 300 miles. A canal across the Delmarva peninsula would cut the trip to just 14 miles.
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But according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the canal, it wasn’t until 1802 that Congress authorized the project. The first dirt was turned in 1804; then in 1806, it stalled for lack of funding. Construction didn’t resume until 1824, and the canal was completed in 1829.
This first canal was 10 feet deep, 66 feet wide on the surface, and 36 feet wide at the channel bottom. It had four locks, which were used until 1919.
After it was first built, it was obvious the canal needed to be deeper and wider. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a feasibility study on whether to rebuild the canal into a “free and open waterway.”
In 1919, the federal government purchased the canal from its long-time operators, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company. The Army Corps of Engineers went to work, and by 1927 the canal locks were eliminated, the canal was enlarged to 90 feet wide and 12 feet deep, and the entire operation ran at sea level.
But by the time this first enlargement was completed, it was obvious the canal needed to be bigger. It was widened again from 1933 to 1938 to 250 feet wide and 27 feet deep. And that still wasn’t enough.
Eight ships collided with bridges across the canal between 1938 and 1950. Congress authorized further expansion of the canal in 1954. When the work was finished in the 1970s, the channel was 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep.
Every time it enlarged the canals, the Corps of Engineers had to build bigger bridges. The five bridges now over the canal have main spans ranging from 540 to 750 feet with heights of 190 to 335 feet. A fun drive with a great view…
The ends of the canal are at Reedy Point in Delaware and the Elk River in Maryland. For those who would like to go hiking, biking, or just stay in one place and watch the ships go by, there are trails on both sides of the canal. You can learn more about the canal at the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Museum in Chesapeake City. And yes, you can go boating and fishing on the canal. Just watch out for the big boats.