The Canal That Could Have Saved “Western Virginia”



    Out of all the early colonies, the only state whose geography created a conundrum that could even be comparable to Virginia’s was that of the State of New York.

    Though not nearly as formidable as the Blue Ridge, New York’s Adirondack Mountains effectively separate large portions of the state from its eastern commercial hub.

    Fearful that such a division would prove to be a cause for fracture, the solution devised by state leaders was to build a canal that would enable navigation from New York City to the state’s capital city of Albany and then to the state’s far western boundary at Buffalo.

    With construction beginning on July 4, 1817, the Erie Canal was finally completed on October 26, 1825.

    Constructing the 363-mile system cost $7million and has been hailed as one of the greatest engineering marvels of the nineteenth century.

    Though pricey, historians make the case that the canal may have saved New York from the same fragmentation Virginia experienced, as well as helped to solidify New York City as the world’s center for commerce and trade.

    An even more audacious undertaking by early Virginia leaders was the James River & Kanawha Canal.

    The plan, which was originally surveyed by George Washington, was begun in 1785.

    Intended to facilitate shipments of passengers and freight by water between the western counties of Virginia and the coast, the expensive project suffered numerous setbacks due to a lack in funding, flood damage and the sheer climb in elevation from the coastal sea level to the headwaters of the New River.

    Though largely financed by the Commonwealth of Virginia through the Virginia Board of Public Works, it was only half completed by 1851, reaching the Town of Buchanan, in Botetourt County, roughly 60 miles from the canal’s intended target, the south fork of the Kanawha, more commonly known as the New River.

    The canal became an early indicator of the sectional strife the two regions would find themselves a party to in the years ahead, as Virginia General Assembly records from 1829-30 reveal.

    Commenting on this early dispute, James McGregor wrote:

    “The western members of the convention were accused of making an attempt to swamp the state with a debt created for the purpose of benefiting the west alone.”

    Most noteworthy, however, is that the greatest opposition to the public works project came from leaders in the Western Virginia’s Northern Panhandle and other communities of the state’s northern region.  Those in the north of what would become West Virginia were in favor of a canal linking the Ohio River to the Chesapeake Bay, as it would allow them additional opportunities to do business with the cities of Baltimore and Washington.

    “Of far greater importance to the state was the project which had for its purpose the connecting of the James and the Kanawha rivers. Here the benefits would have been far greater to the Richmond district than to any western region. But lack of foresight again was the cause of the failure of the plan, which might have prevented in 1861 the defection of the counties drained by the Kanawha. Thus the golden opportunity was allowed to slip by with but feeble attempts to carry out the projected scheme, and when the Civil War broke out the canal had been completed only as far as the town of Buchanan.”

    In an annual report, one Virginia delegate implored his colleagues to lay aside all petty jealousies and pass a bill for the union of the James and the Kanawha rivers, “and thus complete one of the grandest schemes that has engaged the attention of the country since the proposition of the Erie Canal.”

    Unfortunately, lack in financing and the rise of rail transportation rendered the James River & Kanawha Canal too costly to continue and the program was scrapped in the town of Buchanan – having never left the James River watershed.  Had the canal been successful in pushing through the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Kanawha River’s Drainage Basin, Western Virginians would have had a straight and navigable passageway to Virginia’s Capital City of Richmond and the disunion felt by so many in the mountains of Western Virginia may never had existed — just sixty miles and the entire outcome of the American Civil War may have been altered.

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    1. What was not mentioned was that the invention of the train changed the movement of goods. Most all good were transported by rail. The Canal to western Virginia was taken over by the Railroads. The horse or mule trail was the foundation
      for the trains.

    2. I agree. This canal along with C&O Canal would not have saved Western Virginia. The Railroads, back to back floods, and elevation made the Canals obsolete or at least less cost effective. This is why the C&O Canal never went past the coal mines of Cumberland MD. however, lets say the Canals were completed in time for the Civil War. The canals would have just been used as transportation/supply routes and battle grounds as the Railroads were.

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