Chesapeake & Delaware Canal

A Man-Made Wonder Makes an Ecological Connection

Connections. They shape our watershed. Streams to rivers to Bay. Sunlight to underwater grasses to habitat. Zooplankton to forage fish to shorebird. Some are good; some are bad. Fertilizer to algae to deadzones. Development to sediment to smothered oysters. We think often of those man-made connections doing harm to the natural ones. And we spend a lot of effort trying to replace what man has taken away: trees, grasses, oysters. About 350 years ago, Augustine Herman, a Dutch mapmaker, had a crazy idea: Dig a canal—a short cut—connecting the top of the Bay to the Delaware River. It seemed impossible at the time, but human perseverance reigned. Today, the manmade Chesapeake and Delaware Canal reduces travel time for cargo ships, and in the process, saves over 40 million gallons of fuel oil per year. Not a bad outcome.

It was not without years of effort, however.

Dutch envoy Augustine Herman, in the mid-1600s, was the first to suggest that a canal joining the upper Bay and Delaware River would reduce the length of water travel from Philadelphia to Baltimore by almost 300 miles. It was about a hundred years later before the first surveys were done—and decades more before any solid plans were made.

In 1802, after prodding by prominent Philadelphians Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, the legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware incorporated the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company. More surveys were completed and ground was broken in 1804. Work was halted just two years later due to lack of funds.

In 1822, the canal company was reorganized. The cost to complete the canal was estimated at $2 million dollars. Monies were raised through the sale of stocks. Contributing were the federal government ($150,000), Pennsylvania ($100,000), Maryland ($50,000), and Delaware ($25,000). Public contributions made up the balance.

Construction resumed in 1824. Labor was intense. Thousands of men worked picks and shovels for an average daily wage of 75¢. Five years later, the canal—then 10 feet deep and 66 feet wide—was open for travel.

Several locks were used to compensate for water-level changes. Mules and horses towed barges and other vessels through the canal carrying everyday supplies from lumber to grain.

Passengers also traveled the canal. The Ericcson Line (a cruise line servicing Philadelphia and Baltimore) became hot competition for railroad travel until the 1940s.

When steam power became common in the 19th century and boats became larger and unable to navigate the locks, canal traffic declined. President Theodore Roosevelt took notice and appointed a commission to study the feasibility of converting the canal to a "free and open" waterway.

The canal became "sea level" after the elimination of the locks in 1927. Today the 35-footdeep, 450-foot-wide canal and non-railroad bridges are owned and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Traveling the Canal Today

My daughter Helen and I traveled to Chesapeake City, Maryland, (on the west end of the canal) earlier this year. The town is charming, hugging the canal with lots of pretty Victorian "painted ladies," boutiques, restaurants, and inns.

In the morning we wandered through the nearby Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Museum. The self-guided tour includes plenty of old photographs, information on the history of the canal, a monitor showing realtime locations of the ships passing through, the original pump house waterwheel and engines, and a small working lock.

Next to the museum, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office is home to the main control center for the canal. We were welcomed by Resident Engineer James Tomlin, Jr., who has served at this post for 25 years. He was pleased to talk about his canal, the yearly maintenance dredging, the tidal flow, the mildly brackish water, and where we should grab lunch.

Almost as an afterthought, he asked us if we'd like to see the control room. Helen's eyes lit up. Neither of us was disappointed. On duty as Marine Traffic Controller was ex-Navy submariner Joseph Brennan (one of five controllers who cover continuous shifts). Joseph was perched in a long room of windows paralleling the canal. In front of him was a row of live images from the 29 monitoring cameras positioned along the waterway. Another tower with GPS is located on the Delaware side. Data, including real-time water depth and bridge height, are transferred with fiber optics.

Helen, especially, had many questions for Joseph. We learned that fog shuts down the canal and that ice is "tricky," requiring cutters to precede convoys of boats. Joseph's favorite ship, the Proof Gallon, a huge vessel filled with rum had not come through since 1997, but was still on his mind.

I asked Joseph what made a bad day on the canal. "An accident," was his answer. Luckily, they are few and far between. "Mostly," he said, "I watch the seasons change and the water go by."

His job didn't appear so laid back to us. Joseph was constantly watching the comings and goings of canal traffic on a monitor and stopping now and then to speak to ship captains.

After our visit, Helen and I traveled down the canal maintenance road heading east. We stopped at the Summit Bridge which crosses the canal near the border of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Local legend says that water sent over the east side of the bridge will flow to the Delaware River—and that water sent over the west side will travel to the Chesapeake. We laughed aloud at the thought, giddy from the wonder of this man-made marvel and the warmth of a special day together.

It was the perfect spot to end our adventure: in the middle of a great connection.

Loren Barnett Appel

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal at a Glance

LENGTH: Approximately 14 miles.

WIDTH: Approximately 450 feet.

DEPTH: Minimum of 35 feet.

TIDAL FLOW: Chesapeake side is 1.5 feet higher. Tidal change is about 3 feet.

TRAFFIC: The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is the busiest in the world with about 15,000 crossings per year. Forty percent of traffic to the Port of Baltimore passes through the canal.

BRIDGES: Six bridges cross the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. All but one are owned and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Norfolk Southern Bridge is owned by the railroad. Each bridge has a minimum height of 136 feet (when railroad bridge is raised). From west to east:

  • Chesapeake City Bridge, Chesapeake City, MD (MD 213)
  • Summit Bridge, Summit, DE (US 301)
  • Norfolk Southern Bridge, Kirkwood, DE (railroad lift bridge)
    Because waterway traffic is more frequent, bridge is kept open except during train crossings (about six times per day). It takes about six minutes to fully open the bridge.
  • Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Bridge, St. Georges, DE (DE 1)
  • Saint Georges Bridge, St. Georges, DE (US 13)
  • Reedy Point Bridge, Delaware City, DE (DE 9)


  • 1600s: Augustine Herman, a Dutch mapmaker, proposes building a waterway to connect the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • 1788: Philadelphia businessmen, including Benjamin Franklin, push to explore the construction of a canal.
  • 1802: The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Company is incorporated by the legislators of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
  • 1804: Ground is broken on original canal.
  • 1806: Canal work stops due to lack of funds.
  • 1824: Canal Company funded through $2 million in stocks purchased by the federal government, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and private funds.
  • 1829: Canal first opens, 10 feet deep, 13 miles long.
  • 1919: U.S. purchases canal for $2.5 million and hands responsibility to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  • 1927: Locks are eliminated to make canal sea level, 12 feet deep, 90 feet wide.
  • 1938: Canal dredged to 27 feet deep, 250 feet wide, at a cost of $14,690,000.
  • 1954: $100 million canal modernization (to 35 feet deep by 450 feet wide) authorized by Congress.

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