The Erie Canal at Lockport, N.Y.

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The first inland waterway in America was the canal built at Ipswich, Mass., in 1636.  All other waterways were built with private or state funds through a variety of schemes, including the use of a lottery, for two centuries more until the 1850’s.  Constitutional constraints still prohibited Congress from financing canal construction. Still, Congress freely financed surveying projects throughout the country for national defense purposes.

Eventually, reliance upon the Constitution’s ‘Commerce Clause’ emboldened Congress to engage in matching funds with the states and outright grants of smaller projects such as the minuscule Haulover Canal at Titusville in 1852 for a total of $1,200.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Congress begrudgingly bought stock in private canal stock companies and engaged in a number of indirect methods to assist canal companies just as the railroad came into wider use as a faster and more economical means of transporting fruits, vegetables and other perishables as well as iron ore, lumber, and oil.

Back to the future: the Chesapeake and Delaware River Canal

Completed in 1829 during the first great Canal Era when arguments over Constitutional restraints kept Congress from using Federal taxpayer money to fund inland waterway construction, a private company completed the 17-mile waterway between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.

The original waterway was a tollway ten feet deep and sixty-six feet wide, with a boat channel thirty-six feet wide. It had four locks, each 110 feet long and 22 feet wide, later enlarged to 220 feet long and 24 feet wide.  The canal system later gave way to the faster and more economical railway by the time of the Civil War.

Today, the Canal has 5 fixed bridges and one lift bridge.  The four locks have been removed. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal serves as an important inland link in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from Boston to Miami.

To see a short film of a boat transiting the Canal, Tap on this: