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The Roanoke Canal turns a river into a superhighway

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When rivers were our highways, the Roanoke River system was tantalizingly close to being a 400-mile-long superhighway. It had the potential to connect a bountiful Piedmont with seaports and far-flung markets. But at the fall line, where the river tumbled down to the coastal plain, roiling, bolder-strewn rapids brought heavily laden boats to a standstill. Back country farmers dreamed of a Roanoke Canal that could bypass those rapids and provide an outlet for their produce.

The bounty of the Piedmont bottled up by bad roads and dangerous river rapids

Prosperity for the colonial Piedmont depended on the farmers ability to transport their harvest to coastal markets. There, they could sell their produce and acquire staples such as salt, sugar and coffee, as well as manufactured goods. But the deplorable state of roads was like a wall separating them from markets and from a better life. And state government, operating under the conservative canon that tax revenues should not be used to fund internal improvements, seemed incapable or unwilling to help. It was a situation that relegated many Piedmont farmers into an existence of “unwilling self-sufficiency.” Unable to reach markets, they settled for growing no more than they could use themselves or that they could dispose of locally. The resulting economic stagnation earned North Carolina the nickname of “The Rip Van Winkle State.”

For back country farmers in the fertile Roanoke Valley, there was additional frustration. In an era when water transportation was by far the most efficient and economic way to move bulk cargo, the Roanoke River system had the potential to serve as a superhighway connecting farms in western North Carolina and Virginia with seaports on the Albemarle Sound.

A map of the Roanoke River system
The Roanoke River System

The Roanoke River system is a sprawling network of waterways, both major (the Dan, Staunton, and Roanoke Rivers) and minor, stretching over 400 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the coast, and serving a watershed of nearly 10,000 square miles in Virginia and North Carolina. Plied by long wooden cargo boats called “bateaux,” the river system was a natural corridor for trade.

A bateau with a cargo of cotton bales
A bateau with a cargo of cotton bales

But there was a problem. At the fall line, where the Roanoke River tumbles from the rocky Piedmont down to the much lower sandy coastal plain, the normally placid river becomes, Jekyll-to-Hyde-like, nearly 10 miles of churning rapids. Between Rock Landing and Weldon, the river drops 100 feet, surging over and around rocky outcroppings. For a boat laden with goods, attempting passage of those Roanoke River rapids imposed a significant risk of life and cargo.

The rapids were formidable, but if they could be bypassed by a canal, the benefits would be great. Archibald Murphey, the great champion of internal improvements for North Carolina, extolled the possibilities:

Portrait of Archibald DeBow Murphey
Archibald DeBow Murphey

The lands watered by the Roanoke, and its branches are at this day worth in the market of fifty million dollars. When the navigation of these streams shall be improved and a direct outlet formed for the waters of the Albemarle, they will exceed in value two hundred millions.

Much – though by no means all – of the territory that would be aided by improvements to the Roanoke River system was located in Virginia. But the river improvement project would be a cooperative venture between North Carolina and Virginia. And all the agricultural bounty coming off Virginia farms would flow downriver into North Carolina, where it might boost business at the seaports of Edenton and New Bern. Virginia was not happy about that prospect, but it hoped some of the goods from its farms would find their way up the Dismal Swamp Canal to their own port at Norfolk. At any rate, without a canal, the only option for upcountry Virginia farmers was a bad one of laboriously carting their goods overland to Danville or Petersburg.

The Roanoke Navigation Company

As early as 1784, following Virginia’s lead, North Carolina passed legislation designed to clear the Roanoke River system of hazards to navigation (in cooperation with the state of Virginia) and to cut a canal that would bypass the fall line rapids above the town of Weldon. In 1812, the North Carolina legislature chartered the Roanoke River Navigation Company, authorizing it to undertake such improvements.

With regard to the canal, the original charter granted the company the right of eminent domain for land it deemed necessary for the project, with the exception that it could not condemn existing dwellings. Land owners would be paid a fair price as established by a committee of “disinterested freeholders.” As it actually happened, some of the “disinterested freeholders” turned out to be stockholders in the Roanoke Navigation Company. Operators of the canal were also authorized to collect tolls and to seize any boat refusing to pay such tolls. (The boat owner could reclaim his boat by paying a penalty amounting to twice the original toll.)

In 1815, the state agreed to purchase shares in the company, originally setting the support at 250 shares with a value of $100 each. This was ten years before New York’s Erie Canal changed that state and changed the whole philosophy of government involvement in internal improvements. For now, North Carolina government could offer only limited support.

But it was critical support, and with a state commitment in place, in 1816 the Roanoke River Navigation Company was officially organized. The next year, 1817, it began to survey a route for the canal, to condemn land along that route for its own use, and finally, to construct the canal.

The canal would begin at Rock Landing, and would run some 8.5 miles roughly parallel to the river until it rejoined the river at Weldon. In that distance, the river dropped approximately 100 feet, so significant locks would be required to raise and lower boats passing through the canal. Most of the grade differential would be handled by a set of middle locks. At Weldon, where the canal ended in a basin a short distance from the river, a final set of locks would make the transition from basin to river.

Building the Roanoke Canal

Eager to begin construction, the managers of the company were frustrated by the failure of the state to fulfill its promise to provide a qualified engineer. They turned to Virginia for a recommendation, writing that they were interested in hiring:

…a man of energy, both practical, rather than scientific skill… if he is well acquainted with lock building, it will be an additional circumstance in his favor.

They also set into motion:

…the purchase of slaves, the building of cheap houses for the accommodation of the hands, and the improvement and making of a temporary road from the rock landing to the foot of the falls.

Eventually, in 1819, the state of North Carolina hired a chief engineer in the person of Hamilton Fulton, a Scottish civil engineer specializing in “making canals, bridges, railroads and draining swamps.”

America at that time had no native civil engineers, the profession of engineering being found only in the military. The only engineering school in the new country was at the United States Military Academy. In fact, many at the time believed that engineering was a theoretical exercise that had little to do with real-life projects. Any farmer could put together a crew with picks, shovels, mule and drag pan, and they were perfectly capable of digging a ditch for the canal.

By the time Fulton arrived at the site of the Roanoke Canal, the company had already begun construction, guided by the “opinions of unskilled advisors.”  Partly because of a questionable choice of route, the upper 3 miles of the canal had to be hacked out of bedrock sometimes as much as 20 feet down. No small task in a time before power tools.

In the upper canal, where four streams crossed it, culverts had to be built to let the streams pass under. These stone culverts were major projects, having to span not only the canal, but the tow path and canal embankments. The largest (but not by much) culvert was 125 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 4 feet high.

On his arrival, Fulton attempted to impose some engineering expertise on the process. He called for a stone guard lock at the upper end of the canal 400 feet from the river. This lock had no lift/fall function; it was there to regulate water flow from the river into the canal and to protect the canal from damage caused by flood water and by floating debris. It was common practice at the time for riverside land owners who cleared land to throw the cut vegetation into the river. To do so was against the law, but the laws were rarely enforced. Floating snags of tree branches and trunks could do serious damage to an unprotected canal.

For the canal itself, Fulton specified that it be 30 feet wide at the bottom with sides at a slope of 1.5 feet horizontal for every 1 foot vertical. That would make the canal 39 feet wide at surface water. Where necessary, the canal was “puddled” with a clay slurry to prevent seepage.

The Middle Locks do the heavy lifting

Most of the lifting and lowering to compensate for grade change over the run of the canal would be accomplished at the middle locks, three miles down the canal from Rock Landing. Fulton wanted four single locks, but he found that construction had already begun on two sets of double locks. Although he believed that was a less efficient system, the die was cast. Each lock was 16 feet wide – to accommodate two 7-foot wide bateaux side-by-side – and 100 feet long. (A bateau could be 80 feet long.) At each end of a lock were wooden gates made of oak and hung on steel hinges. The double set of locks accounted for a total of 35 feet of lift and fall.

A preserved lock on the Roanoke Canal
One of the lock sets in the middle locks

The massive stones used to build the middle locks were hewn and finished upriver at Hamlin’s Falls. Then they were transported by boat down the canal to the lock site. All preparatory stone work was accomplished by hand with chisels and sledge hammers, largely by enslaved laborers.

Rock work on the Roanoke Canal
Rock work on the Roanoke Canal

At the lock site, recognizing the need for more skilled labor in laying the stones, the company contracted with James Olcott of New York to do the work. Olcott brought with him a crew of stone masons, a “parcel of excellent mechanics.” (Some say they were Portuguese; others say there is no evidence for that claim.) At any rate, many became sick in the summer heat and could not work. Then one night Olcott packed his belongings – and some that were not his – and decamped for parts unknown. The company felt “greatly imposed on and deceived by him.” The work was slowed, but it went on, and eventually was completed.

The Aqueduct at Chockoyotte Creek

Some distance below the middle locks, about a mile above Weldon, an even greater engineering challenge arose. There, the route of the canal was crossed by rapidly-flowing Chockoyotte Creek.  Fulton, unfazed, designed a 110-foot-long stone aqueduct to carry the canal over the creek. Although his original design called for a structure with two elliptical arches, Fulton agreed for budgetary reason to build the structure with only one arch. That 30-foot-wide and  16-foot-tall arch did its job, allowing the creek to pass under and the bateaux to pass over.

A glowing 1831 report described the Chockoyotte Aqueduct as:

…excellent workmanship and beautiful; it is formed of hewn stone, very neatly dressed, and of the most durable quality, resting on a rock foundation.

The aqueduct on the historic Roanoke Canal
The Chockoyotte Creek Aqueduct on the Roanoke Canal
The top of the aqueduct on the historic Roanoke Canal
The top of the aqueduct, once the canal, is a trail today

Plan B at the Basin

At the bottom of the canal near Weldon, where it was to rejoin the Roanoke River, additional engineering challenges combined with political wrangling.

The canal ended an a basin just short of the river. The distance was not great, but there was a 44 foot drop from the basin to the river. Based on previous expenditures, it would take an estimated $44,000 to build the required locks. The Roanoke Navigation Company did not want to incur the expense, their position being that it was perfectly acceptable for  bateaux to unload at the basin and for the cargo to be carted to steamboats waiting in the river.

Under political pressure from the state, the company finally built six wooden locks connecting basin to river. (Once again, Fulton did not get his way. His design called for 4 locks separated by basins.)

The locks were completed in 1834, and a bateau tested them with a trial run from the basin to the river. But a short time later, a freshet surging down the canal destroyed several of the locks. The company declined to rebuild, and the system of carting goods from basin to river remained in place.

Success, depending on how you measure it

As was true for a number of early internal improvements in North Carolina, the venture was not profitable for shareholders. Dividends were paid, but investors never recouped their capital.

But by other yardsticks, the Roanoke Canal was a remarkable success. And it was that despite a constant struggle with (ironically) water. Flooding called for seemingly continuous clearing of debris and repair of canal banks. And periods of drought brought low water levels that closed down the canal entirely at times.

But the access to markets that the canal afforded to Piedmont farmers allowed many in the upcountry of North Carolina and Virginia to prosper. And it wasn’t just the canal itself. Toll revenues from the canal ($8,845.66 in 1838) let the Roanoke Navigation Company clear navigational hazards from many miles of river above and below the canal.

Land prices up the river increased on the promise of more profitable farms. And as always, there was speculation, sometimes by people associated with the project. Archibald Murphey, who lobbied so strongly for the project, purchased land near Danville, Virginia several years before construction began on the canal; he later sold his holding for a significant profit. And Cadwallader Jones, President of the Roanoke Navigation Company, who bought several parcels of land near the top of the proposed canal turned around and sold them to a New York merchant. The merchant – likely a more shrewd businessman than Mr. Jones – paid $100 for the two lots, then sold them for $5,000.

The Roanoke Canal was quite typical of 1800s internal improvements nationwide in that the resulting public benefit far outweighed any profit by investors. As it was said of another canal:

The canal has been more useful to the public than to the owners.

For the Roanoke Canal, death by railroad

The canal had a decade-long period of fiscal success, but as early as 1836, some of its investors were wary of a looming threat: steam-powered railroads. At that time, the Petersburg Railroad and the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad were approaching from the north, while the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad were approaching from the south. The company officially maintained that the railroads should be “…viewed as auxiliaries and not as rivals.”

But by 1838, the company saw the future, and it did not include canals. The president of the Roanoke Navigation Company reported to stockholders:

…the great revolutions which have been wrought by the use of steam power, have disclosed the fact that our sluice navigation is unsuited to and insufficient for the wants and convenience of the country through which our rivers flow. Our improvements were planned and constructed before the advantages of steam power were generally known. Were they now to be made, there can be no doubt our funds might be more advantageously applied for ourselves, and for the country.

The canal would linger on, but in 1859, the state gave the Roanoke Navigation Company permission to cease use of the canal, to sell off all real estate, and to apply any revenues toward paying off debts.

The legacy of the Roanoke Canal

In 1885, businessmen from Petersburg, Virginia purchased the canal and turned it into a power generation utility. In the 1890s, the Roanoke River Development Company would use waterwheels propelled by canal water to provide the electricity that powered mills in the hamlets of Rosemary and Roanoke Junction (which grew into the town of Roanoke Rapids) and in Weldon.

A section of the Roanoke Canal today
You can still trace the Roanoke Canal today

Today, the property of the Roanoke Canal is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is well worth a visit. You can walk the trail along remaining sections of the original canal. You can visit the middle locks in Roanoke Rapids, where one of the locks is preserved as part of the Roanoke Canal Museum. That lock is pictured at the top of this page with the bateau “Brunswick Belle” ready to be floated downriver. And you can marvel at the aqueduct across Chockoyotte Creek, looking as though it was built yesterday. (In fact, other than minor repairs in the 1890s, the aqueduct stands today exactly as it was originally constructed under Hamilton Fulton’s direction nearly 200 years ago.)

Portrait of Archibald Murphey is courtesy The North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [277860733_9972]

Photo of the bateau hauling cotton is courtesy North Carolina Archives & History

Here is the link for the website of the Roanoke Canal Museum and Trail. It is located in Roanoke Rapids.

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