The Hidden Change on Canal Street

Martin King

The advent of the twentieth century brought change to the streets of Richmond and a renewed livelihood to the city after its destruction in the Civil War.  New technologies and business practices had changed the way the city functioned and grew.  Though Richmond still stood as one of the more advanced cities of the South, its prosperity was not spread equally through its streets.  Canal Street once led the way in Richmond’s industries, serving as the hub for the majority of the city’s imports and exports, but the passing of time eroded much of the street’s success.  Nonetheless, had a traveler whom had not been there for thirty or so years strolled down the street after the turn of the century, they would have recognized little change on the face of Canal Street.    Different business names and signs of the new era would be present, but the overall make up of the street, the buildings themselves and the atmosphere, probably would not appear all that different.  Despite the similarities on the surface, change had struck Canal Street just as much as anywhere else.  The life of Canal Street was without question industry, and during this time, industry changed drastically.  A lumber yard, a mill, and warehouses cluttered the street close to the basin, nearest to the river, while packed residencies and small businesses lined the street as one ventured further from the James River.  While what happened on Canal Street remained fairly constant, the method by which business transpired changed.  Primarily, the failure of the Kanawha Canal during the Civil War and the arrival of railroads in the 1840’s drastically changed the game of logistics for Richmond companies, as well as businesses elsewhere.  The shift in power which occurred over the second half of the nineteenth century shined through at the turn of the century.  In addition, ownership and commerce was changing.  The big three markets for Canal Street, tobacco, grain, and iron, were becoming more globalized and Richmond saw more competition from outside its borders.  Segregation did not appear as suddenly on Canal Street as it did in much of Richmond, but cropped up nonetheless.  The change of Canal Street hid behind a guise of monotony yet penetrated the functions of the street deeply.

While the turn of the century was bringing sweeping transformations to much of the city and the country, Canal Street had two factors that helped it hide behind its visage of old.  Segregation was a new and prominent topic throughout the young nation and sprang up for debate in even the most stalwart regions.  On Canal Street, segregation appeared slowly in sections but did not have a defined barrier.  Before the turn of the century, these divisions were smaller and more scattered; however, a reasonable number of anomalies to the pattern of divisions remained with mixed areas.[1]  After the turn of the century, the divisions between races still survived in much the same fashion, but on a larger scale.[2]  Nevertheless, anomalies to the pattern of barriers between races remained, though less prominent.  Much of the segregation on Canal Street was probably by choice.  The residents of the working class were not wealthy on the average and did not live in nice or large spaces.  As a result, people trended towards living with other people they could associate with in order to gain a sense of familiarity, but this change occurred gradually and no drastic shift emerged.  Furthermore, the buildings themselves saw little change during the time period.[3]  Though they may have changed hands of ownership, warehouses remained warehouses, while small residences did the same.  This too seems expected in such a rough, industrial area of town.  The most one would see with any regularity was a change of use for the same space.  Renovation costs stood prohibitively high for the benefit connected to the reconstruction of a building in such a dirty neighborhood with limited attractions.  Though the street may have appeared to be a replica of its earlier self, if one delves just slightly deeper, it rapidly becomes apparent that this marks the end of monotony for Canal Street.

The story of change on Canal Street is a story of industry and little else, from its function, to its appearance, to its class of inhabitants.  Through the nineteenth century, Canal Street prospered with the success of the Kanawha Canal and similarly fell to its near demise with it when it sent its last shipments in the 1880s.[4]  Commerce ran through its veins.  However, where the Kanawha left off, the railroads picked up the slack for Canal Street.  Along the old tow-paths, railways were laid and put to use as new avenues of trade for Richmond.[5]  Railroads began in the 1830s and by 1880 they had surpassed the canal completely due to its closing, but it wasn’t until past the turn of the century that they began to reach their full potential as the backbone of American goods transports.  Tobacco, iron, and grain served as hot markets of the time and Canal Street controlled a piece of all of them.  Due to its proximity to the railroad, some of which was built on the remains of the canal, the warehouses of Canal Street did not fail with the Kanawha, but fell into the hands of the large enterprise, such as the railroad companies.[6]  With the railroad, resource supply lines blossomed because shipping was no longer hindered by the limits of American waterways.  Railroads bought old warehouses as they vertically integrated and began to control larger portions of commerce in the young nation.  Despite the large advances, companies still needed workers to load the trains and stock the warehouses, workers like those residing further down Canal Street.  Tenants of these packed slums were mostly laborers at the turn of the century.[7] They found work as they could, often at the rail yard and surrounding warehouses.   Their presence served a simple yet imperative role in industry.  The simple movement of goods proved to be the lifeline of commerce and although the industrial revolution was constantly mechanizing, inventions like the grain elevator still needed operators and the need for rail yard attendants continued.  There was no absolute substitute for a hard day’s work by a decent laborer.  The success of the railroads over the canal changed not only the workings of industry and Canal Street, but those who called the street home.

The influence of the railroads hit Canal Street’s markets far beyond the city limits of Richmond.  Canal Street played a role mainly in the large and lucrative businesses of the time, which small famers or businesses had a much harder time competing with as industrialization made them more efficient.  While the railroad spread these industries to consumers all across America, it also brought back the repercussions of the global market.  The fluctuation of flour prices in Chicago now had an immediate effect on the prices in Richmond due to the ability to transport goods more quickly and efficiently.[8]  This new transportation ability brought greater long term stability to the prices of goods across Richmond.  Tobacco, which had previously been grown primarily in the piedmont region due to the extensive network of waterways, was spreading further into the South.  The prerequisites of location for a plantation had become climate and proximity to a rail line, instead of a waterway as railroads expanded the network of shipping lines across the region.  Tobacco more than doubled in production from 1870 to 1900, and again doubled by 1930, due to demand and the ability to transport goods.[9]  Iron production in the States also grew by more than fifty percent in the ten years prior to 1900, and doubled again in the ten years after.[10]  Tredegar Iron works, one of the staples of the industry that resided near Canal Street, had its avenues of shipping greatly expanded.  Freight cars could carry a much higher volume of ore to the furnaces because they did not possess the same weight restrictions that hindered the flat bottom boats of the canal.  While railroads had only been built on a large scale since 1830, by the year 1900, over a quarter million miles of railroad track rested on the soil of the United States of America and canals had become largely obsolete.[11]  The web of connections between cities strengthened greatly with the railroad, and as a result the commercial ties cities shared became ever more important.

The transformation of Canal Street at the turn of the century was covered by a cloak of sameness but ran deeper than the eye could see.  While the buildings and residents remained established, the true pivot point proved to be the shift of power between the Kanawha Canal and the railroad.  Shipping and storage was the main function of the street and livelihood of its workers, but the transition to the railroad effected not only Richmond but trade on a larger scale.  As the nation was growing, so was its demand for goods.  In the mid nineteenth century, Canal Street stood to be the epicenter of trade for the South.  However, with the failure of the canal, Canal Street desperately tried to maintain its grasp on a piece of the prosperity.  Fortunately, the railroads offered the street a second chance as it ventured into the twentieth century as one of the many stops along its lines, no longer unique, but not all forgotten.

[1] Richmond City Directory, 1884, pt. 89.

[2] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pt. 1298.

[3] Digital Sanborn Maps — Splash Page, 1886 pp 7-12, accessed March 25, 2011, vs comparison with footnote 6.

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

[5] Ibid, 236.

[6] Digital Sanborn Maps — Splash Page, 1905 pp 12, 92, 91, accessed March 25, 2011,

[7] Richmond City Directory, 1911, pt. 1298.

[8] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 105.

[9] Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial times to 1957. (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1960), 302.

[10] Ibid, 365.

[11] Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial times to 1957. (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1960), 429.

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