The Kanawha Canal: Lifeline of the South

Martin King

Canal Street in downtown Richmond currently stands in a shadow of its former glory as the lifeline of the industrial South with the eternal rumbling of traffic polluting its atmosphere.  The street no longer guides the edge of the Kanawha Canal but instead divides large warehouses and parking lots.  Just 150 years ago, before the start of the American Civil War, this road lined an iconic passage, the Kanawha Canal, through which all shipments from the Atlantic to the interior of Virginia passed.  The canal, George Washington’s contribution to the City of Richmond, circumnavigated the falls of the James River, which had previously prevented any ship from going further than 123 miles up the river.[1]  Not only did the canal allow for a trade route through the city to the rest of the Piedmont Region, but sparked the development of Richmond as a major American port and a leading industrial center for consumable goods.  The life of Canal Street has been inherently connected to the wellbeing of the Canal due to their proximity.  As the Kanawha Canal developed through the early and mid nineteenth century, Canal Street prospered; however, it was drastically changed during the American Civil War and suffered immensely with the war’s conclusion due to its permanent effects.

The Kanawha Canal was the key to the continued success of Richmond as a competing American city in the developing country.  George Washington spear-headed the endeavor to create the Kanawha Canal and upon its initial opening in 1795, the city began to reap the benefits.[2]  Washington was correct when he envisioned the potential success that a canal such as this would possess, however, it did not so much benefit its creators as the City of Richmond as a whole up until the Civil War.  Transportation of goods in the early nineteenth century was both costly and slow which posed as a problem for merchants and consumers alike.  Canals delivered one of the earliest major solutions to the logistical nightmare of transportation which had plagued industry and alleviated a major restrictor of industrialization.  Tolls for use of the Canal were not based on solely distance traveled or weight, but instead were based on both good and weight[3].   More profitable goods were charged more heavily.  Nonetheless, the Canal contributed to a myriad of the City’s industries.  Among the principle articles that were brought down the river, the subsequent industries which prospered included tobacco, wheat, corn, flour, coal, iron ore, stone, and timber.  For the most part, commodities traveling up the river were merchandise and consumable goods.  Richmond prospered so heavily because, by 1820, the Canal had opened up trade an additional 220 miles inland from Richmond, which stayed open until the Civil War.[4]  Combined with the 123 miles the river travels to the Atlantic Coast, Richmond then possessed a substantial dominion with which to trade. This ended up giving it a competing edge as a port.

Canal Street overlooked the development of the Kanawha Canal and eventually followed suit in its footsteps.  The exponential growth associated with the Canal carried throughout Richmond but Canal Street was the only firsthand witness.  Despite being in an industrial section of town, the street attracted businesses and residence alike due to its location.  The high traffic of the area brought an abundance of customers to businesses, while the proximity to the Canal provided an attractive location for middle class merchants to live close to their work place.  From 1840 to 1860, when the Canal hit its peak just prior to the Civil War, the urban population of Virginia had increased by over sixty percent while the rural population increased by less than twenty percent.[5]  This contrasting growth was due in part to the success witnessed by Canal Street by the canal and fledgling railroads.  The great potential for success in urban businesses brought about by the Canal had sparked the change from rural to urban living.  The growth of Canal Street in relation to the Kanawha Canal shows the project’s success which, though it did not last as long as expected.

With the coming of the American Civil War, Canal Street unknowingly prepared to endure a drastic change in its everyday business and be tested as the lifeline of the South.  The growing success of the Street and Canal had put it under scrutiny of Southern leaders and made it the leading candidate to act as the Capitol of the Confederacy in the event of secession. Just prior to this event, one could have witnessed active businesses and large homes up and down Canal Street.[6]  Residence of these homes and surrounding area were most likely small merchants and business owners.  They were not the top tier of society as they did not live in the most affluent of Richmond neighborhoods but they would not have necessarily been considered in need either.  Both business and life on the Street were as normal as one could imagine for the most part and although crime was not abnormally high at this time, watchmen guarded inhabitants of the Street at night, and residents appeared to be cautious.[7]  The change in the life of Canal Street came about with the realization that war was imminent.  Just days prior to the attack on Fort Sumter an order of assembly went out in the Richmond newspaper to gather on Canal Street.[8]  Days later, the street was bustling with people in ranks.  The militia came out of the wood work in full swing with pride and swiftness.  Despite their presence in numbers, they lacked arms at this point and the City of Richmond, the new Capitol of the Confederacy, would use its industrial power to help alleviate this problem.[9]  This moment marked the peak of Richmond, the Kanawha Canal, and Canal Street.  Moving forward, the stress of war and the overbearing power of the North begin to take a toll on the entire South, especially its lifeline.

The American Civil War forever changed the face of Canal Street.  Immediately articles seeking skilled workers, organizing associations and districts, and assembly orders appeared within the Richmond newspapers which had been far less prominent before.  Canal Street, because of its proximity to the heart of the logistics of the war, watched the mechanics of such a large scale effort in action.  The Civil War created jobs and stimulated the Southern economy as the Military began to consume resources at a rate never before seen by the city.  The War permeated all spheres of life and strained the residents of Richmond, as an ever increasing number of people were brought into the battle, not necessarily in a fighting manner, but supplying and providing for the war effort..  Associations and organizations formed to help organize the people as a whole and to collect funds.[10]  By 1862 a barracks had been erected on Canal Street as well, as it was a popular muster site for many battalions.[11]  The entire city had become a military machine, serving for a common goal with little other interest.

As the Civil War progressed a general air of despair encroached into the atmosphere of Canal Street.  The newspapers flooded with real estate ads and reports of robberies.  The problem of crime increased heavily as the war pushed the basic needs of people and experienced a shift from money to useable goods.  This reflects the value of Confederate money, which lost much of its value due to inflation.  In 1863 there was a large fire in a warehouse on Canal Street which foreshadowed the coming events of the War.[12]  It was the most costly loss of commercial goods Richmond had seen yet.  After this tragedy, a new tone appeared in the Daily Dispatch.  Robberies plagued the city and became more forceful, work ads changed from seeking employees to seeking employment, and a rising number of auctions appeared as peoples’ basic needs cease to be met.  The stress of war infiltrated the lives of Richmonders.  The Kanawha Canal, which had previously served the interested of private business had been enslaved by the Confederacy.  No longer were private businesses prospering and providing for their owners, but instead they filled the needs of the war.

The Civil War left the Kanawha Canal and Canal Street as little more than somber memories.  Northern ports, like Boston and New York, took the lead as international traders.  Furthermore, Richmond as an industrial powerhouse suffered a crippling blow as railways gained momentum, which far out performed canals as transportation solutions. Railways unleashed an entirely new potential for industry because businesses were no longer confined to the edge of waterways or the limitations of barges.  It raises no surprise that the last mention of Canal Street during the Civil War in the Richmond Daily Dispatch appears on March 28, 1865, two weeks before the closing of the war.  Not only was the newspaper out of commission by the end of the war, but the Canal had also become obsolete.  The once bustling street which guided the Canal came to the end of its glory days and ceased its struggle to survive with the closing of the war, possessing little more than a note of rich history.

[1] Wayland Fuller Dunaway, History of the James River and Kanawha Company. (New York: AMS Press, 1969), 10.

[2] Wayland Fuller Dunaway, History of the James River and Kanawha Company. (New York: AMS Press, 1969), 29.

[3] Ibid, 46.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Gregg D. Kimball, American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 39.

[6] “For Sale or Rent.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Nov. 13, 1860.

[7] “Burglary.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 15, 1861.

[8]“ Attention, fourth Companyfirst Battalion, 19th Reg’t, Va. Militia” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 11, 1861.

[9] “The Militia.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Apr. 15, 1861.

[10] “For the Soldiers.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jul. 23, 1862.

[11] “Elliot Batallion.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Jul. 26, 1861.

[12] “Extensive Fires.” Richmond Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Mar. 12, 1863.

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