The Story of the Rappahannock Canal

In June 1816, the Virginia Herald announced a meeting to be held to formulate plans for making the Rappahannock River commercially navigable above the fall line rapids at Fredericksburg.

That meeting was followed by many others which resulted in an official survey and recommendation in 1817 to develop the river upstream for fifty miles to Waterloo or Carter's Run in Fauquier County. The plan was to construct twenty dams to form slack water ponds, these to be used for poled canal boats as well as to feed the thirty-three lift locks needed to navigate the 323-foot difference in elevation. There would also be fourteen guard locks. Fifteen miles of canals were to be dug along the side of the river to bypass the areas of rapids.

It took twelve more years of work to complete the financial and construction planning before the actual commencement of work. It was on January 21, 1829, that a procession formed in front of the Town Hall in Fredericksburg at 10 o'clock. It was to proceed from the Town Hall down Princess Anne Street to Wolfe, then to Caroline and up that street to the site of the present Community Center north of Pitt Street.

The procession was headed by the officers of the Canal Company. They were followed by the clergy, the Masonic Lodge Number Four in uniform, the mayor and councilmen, officials from the varying counties, musicians, mechanics with appropriate implements, fire companies, teachers and pupils, captains of the vessels and their seamen in uniform, draymen with drays two abreast, and somewhere within rode an old Revolutionary pensioner.

The Dedication

The Masonic Lodge plumbed, leveled and squared a hollowed cornerstone in which was placed an inscribed silver plate bearing the date and purpose of the ceremony.

Following numerous speeches, the ceremonial party, at the signal of a gun, put the spades to the earth and over one hundred laborers began digging. The leaders of the venture soon retired to Blackburn's Tavern for a banquet where toasts were offered to the success of everything!

Bit by bit the work was accomplished during the next 20 years and in 1849 the work was declared completed, although it had been used piecemeal for years prior to the announced completion date.

The dams were either of crib or wall-type construction, the basic ingredient of either type being stone covered with oak planks about two inches thick. The dams were linked with abutments made of stones laid in mortar on either bank and varied in length from two hundred to one thousand feet and in heights from six to twelve feet. These dams formed slack water ponds, some of which were over two miles in length, which the canal boats navigated by use of poles or oars, there being no tow paths.

Eighteen of the lift locks and seven of the guard locks were built of stone, usually granite laid in cement. (Most of these are visible today along the riverside). The remainder of the locks were built of pine or white oak.

Canals, required to bypass difficult parts of the river, totaled fifteen miles, some of them individually over a mile long. They were not less than two and one-half feet deep (their shallowness a surprise to modern-day seekers of their paths) and twenty-one feet wide and were provided with places for boats to pass.

Trade on the Canal

The canal boats in general measured sixty-five feet by nine feet nine inches, this being the maximum allowed by the locks, and drew about twenty inches of water when fully loaded. A boat could carry about 200 barrels or loads up to twenty-five tons. (The remains of one old boat found in 1953 may be seen at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton, Virginia).

From September 30, 1849, until September 30, 1850, the canal company reported the following business (in rounded numbers):

Descending traffic consisted of 617,000 pounds of merchandise; 348,000 feet of lumber; 39,500 pieces of barrel timber; 34,000 bushels of wheat; 26,000 barrels of flour; 3,000 bushels of corn; 1,000 cords of wood and 300 bushels of oats. Tolls collected were $4,000.

Ascending traffic consisted of 932,000 pounds of merchandise; 175,000 pounds of guano; 84,000 pounds of lime; 49,000 bricks; 2,000 tons of plaster; 1,000 sacks of salt; 1,000 bushels of clover seed; 154 barrels of fish; 38 barrels of tar and 13 tons of agricultural salts. Tolls collected were $2,000.

End of a Dream

In 1852, the last full year of operation, the company collected its largest amount of tolls, $8,600, indicating very little increase over the first year's income. Since expenses each year for the repair of the dams, locks and canals amounted to about $10,000 a year, one can see why bankruptcy was declared in 1853.

While the canal may have been used by individuals on a piecemeal basis after 1853, the Rappahannock Canal Company ceased to exist after the initial 37 years of planning, the 20 years of construction and the 4 years of "in the red" operations.

The Canal Company's properties were purchased by the Fredericksburg Water Power Company whose goal was to make Fredericksburg a manfacturing center -- "a Lowell of the South," (after Lowell, Massachusetts which was outstanding for its water power development) but that is another story!

The present canal in Fredericksburg which serves the water filtration plant* is a remnant of the original canal used by the canal boats in the 1835-1855 period.

A more detailed treatment of the Rappahannock Canal may be found in Donald S. Callaham's thesis by that name, available at local libraries.


This article first appeared in January, 1978 issue of The Fredericksburg Times. It is placed here with the author's permission.

Editor's Notes:
*In February of 2004, the Embrey Dam was rocked by explosions set by the Corps of Engineers in their efforts to do away with an dangerous structure which had existed passed its usefulness. Once its debris is cleared away, recreational boaters will find a better route down the Rappahannock and fish will return to their natural migration patterns. The city canals, their water source exhausted, will appear to be little more than deep trenches, ironic as their existence as natural barriers was of tactical importance during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The Free Lance-Star has a timeline of events in the Embrey Dam saga online. The dam was the constructed shortly after the demise of the Rappahannock Canal Company.

**The full title of the work is The Rappahannock Canal by Donald S. Callaham. It was originally presented as the author's thesis at the American University in 1967. It is available in the Virginiana Room of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.