History unlocked at the C&D Canal Museum

Displays at the C&D Canal Museum tell the story of the waterway linking the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.

C&D Canal spans waterways, and maritime history

Of all the sights that visitors to Chesapeake City, Maryland, can see, only a handful of tourists and locals alike manage to make their way to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Museum. Those who do are pleasantly surprised by its scenic location and informative exhibits. Tucked away at the far end of the town harbor, the waterfront museum occupies the old stone pump house from the days when locks, like water-filled stair steps, were used by vessels negotiating the canal.

Those locks are long-gone, but inside the museum, visitors can find a host of information and artifacts related to the canal, including the 36-foot wooden waterwheel that once filled the Chesapeake City lock. There are maps and aerial photographs showing the 14-mile canal’s watery route across the Delmarva Peninsula. A working model of a lock demonstrates their function. A display case houses fossils found during the digging of the canal. There is even a video chronicling the construction of the Rt. 1 bridge, the most recent span across the canal.

“It’s really a wonderful little museum,” says Ron Francis, a former town councilman who has helped work to promote the museum. “This is a good place to go if you want a better sense of the history of the canal and its role today in commercial shipping.   The changes that the canal have been through are fascinating.  It’s well worth the time.”

The idea canal for a canal stretches back to the early 1600s, when explorer and Cecil County founder Augustine Herman first mapped the region. Herman, and others after him, were frustrated that there was no waterway connecting the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.

It’s a little hard to envision today, but in colonial times when roads were unpaved and muddy, rivers and canals were the original superhighways for transportation of goods and people.

Ships coming up the Chesapeake had to be unloaded at Cecil County ports such as Fredericktown, Frenchtown or Elk Landing, and then their goods or passengers traveled overland to Philadelphia or else to ports on the Delaware Bay.

Several routes for a canal were proposed over the years, and there was even at least one false start during the administration of President Thomas Jefferson.   It wasn’t until 1822 that the first steps were taken toward construction of today’s Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

It may surprise Marylanders that Pennsylvania business leaders were so influential in raising the $2.25 million to fund digging the canal. This is because Pennsylvania merchants were frustrated at seeing so much of the lumber and grain coming down the Susquehanna River from their home state going on to Baltimore by water. A water route to the Delaware Bay, they surmised, would help Philadelphia benefit from the goods produced in their own state.

The old stone museum was once a pumping house for the Chesapeake City lock.

Construction began in 1825.  In the days before heavy machinery, digging the canal was backbreaking work, as evidenced by some of the artifacts at the canal museum. There are picks and shovels, of course, but one of the most interesting construction tools on display is a wooden bucket. The bucket would be lowered by a rope into the canal bed being dug, filled with dirt, and then lifted out by hand. Thousands, if not millions, of buckets were removed in this way during the digging of the canal.

Interestingly, from the black and white photographs and other information displayed at the canal museum, it becomes apparent that African Americans and Irish immigrants provided much of the labor. Their pay was around 75 cents per day.

The canal was first filled with water in 1829 and operated as a private enterprise for the next 90 years. Mules pulled the barges along, plodding down towpaths that bordered the waterway. (In front of the Inn at the Canal in south Chesapeake City, you can still see the tiny office used by Henry Brady, who had a business hiring out mules and then steam tugs to pull barges.)

In 1919, the United States government bought the canal and began construction to remove the locks and transform the C&D into a sea-level waterway.  The government had a strategic motive, which was to create an inland waterway protected from a new threat that arose during World War I — enemy submarines that prowled the open seas.

Visitors to the museum will learn that today, the C&D is the second-busiest commercial canal in the world. (The Panama Canal is first.)   Ocean-going ships and barges use it as a shortcut between New York or  Philadelphia and the Chesapeake Bay ports of Baltimore and Norfolk. Of course, the canal also remains a busy recreational waterway.

CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Old coins that tell a story.

The museum is free and open to the public Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.   The museum is also open some Saturdays during the summer.

One summertime Saturday when I worked there as a volunteer, roughly 40 guests from all over the country stopped by to visit the museum. They really put my knowledge of the canal to the test.  One visitor from Texas was a canal buff fascinated by the history of these unique waterways. Another group that had traveled from North Carolina included a woman who wanted to reconnect with her roots after having moved away more than 20 years before.

“Look at all this,” she said.  “I grew up right in Chesapeake City and I had no idea about the history of the canal.”

The canal museum is just a short drive away for most in Maryland and Delaware, and a pleasant place to spend an hour or so during a visit to town.  And on the benches outside that overlook the water, you can bring a picnic lunch or just sit and contemplate what it must have been like to move all that earth, one bucket at a time, all those years ago.

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