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RICHMOND
James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District

Kanawha Canal

Kanawha Canal
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development

 

 

The James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District illustrates the relationship between Richmond’s early inhabitants and the James River.  Following settlement by English colonists, the construction of millraces parallel to the banks of the river provided water to power mills and later electric plants.  In 1784, George Washington voiced his support to the Virginia General Assembly for a grand scale waterway. His vision was to link the James River with the Kanawha River in western Virginia, which would then open up access to the resources of the American West via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Incorporation of the state-sanctioned James River Company in 1785, with George Washington as its honorary president, led to the development of the James River and Kanawha Canal.

The digging of the beginnings of a towpath made it possible for cargo-bearing barges to navigate up the canal and beyond the rapids of the James River where it flows past downtown Richmond. Construction of the Great Basin by the turn of the 18th century and completion of the Tidewater Connection in 1822 allowed larger boats to enter the city below the falls.  Mills and warehouses surrounding the Great Basin allowed direct loading and unloading of goods that were departing or arriving by water.  Water from the canal channeled into millraces powered a number of gristmills, allowing Richmond to become one of the major world flour producers and exporters. By 1840, construction of the canal was complete from Richmond to Lynchburg. A series of wooden locks, most dating from the 1840s, permitted access to the upper James River, the focus of subsequent developments.  By 1851, the canal system extended 197 miles westward, terminating at what would be its final destination, the town of Buchanan in Botetourt County.  The building of the “great lock” next to the present-day intersection of Dock and Pear Streets between 1850 and 1854 connected the James River with the Richmond Dock completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system.  The location is now a small city park called the Great Ship Lock Park. 

The 1850s were the heyday of the James River and Kanawha Canal, the time canal traffic was at its busiest. Nearly 200 boats passed through on a regular basis, with barges bringing raw materials like tobacco and wheat from western Virginia and returning with other products from the city.  Passenger boats, called packets, made up only a small percentage of traffic on the canal.  They typically carried as many as 40 people and, with draft animals pulling the boats from the adjacent towpath, took approximately 33 hours to reach Lynchburg. 

In 1880, the Richmond and Allegheny Railway Company bought the canal and laid tracks on the towpath.  This, compounded by flooding and damage suffered during the Civil War, marked the canal system’s demise and its eclipse by the railroads.  Although it would never reach the Kanawha River, the James River and Kanawha Canal was nonetheless a visionary and monumental engineering effort that bypassed seven miles of falls and continued 197 miles through Virginia’s western mountain ranges.

Heading west from the Great Shiplock, the district includes a variety of historic and re-constructed features including the following:

• The “Tidewater Connection” (so named because it permitted seafaring vessels to bypass the falls in order to access the mills and warehouses surrounding the Turning Basin) runs west along Dock Street to the new turning basin at 14th Street.

• In downtown Richmond visitors can experience a modified portion of the canal system, the Canal Walk, which winds 1¼  miles through downtown Richmond alongside reconstructed portions of the Haxall Canal and the James River & Kanawha Canal.  The Canal Walk parallels the north bank of the James River from 17th Street on the east to 5th Street on the west, and features interpretive displays and wonderful vantage points of the James River as well as some of Richmond’s early 20th-century industrial buildings.  Along this section of the canal visitors can view a major stone bridge near the foot of 13th Street, the tidewater connection locks. A massive stone construction is located adjacent to 11th and Byrd Street, and a large intact, but dry section of the canal can be viewed extending west of 6th Street next to the Tredegar Iron Works.

• A long intact section of the canal can be viewed from Hollywood Cemetery and Maymont.

• A large lock is adjacent to Byrd Park Pump House.

• A number of historic buildings line the canal, including the old Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) hydroelectric plant dating to 1899 and located at the base of 12th Street.  Further west, at the base of Gamble’s Hill, lies the Tredegar Iron Works complex.  Tredegar, which employed more than 2,000 people at its peak and produced 90 percent of the cannons for the Confederate Army, now houses an industrial museum and the Civil War Visitor Center.

Plan your visit

The James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District extends approximately 10 miles from the Ship Lock at the south end of Peach St. in Richmond, westward to the intersection of an extension of Sleepy Hollow Rd. and the C & O Railroad tracks (outside the City in Henrico County). The linear district consists of earthen excavations that comprise the greater part of the canal system as well as the stone locks, bridges, culverts, walls, towpaths and other related objects. The buildings adjacent to the canal are not part of the district.

Visitors can experience a re-routed version of the original canal system on the Canal Walk, which winds 1 ¼ miles through downtown Richmond alongside reconstructed portions of the Haxall Canal and the James River & Kanawha Canal. The Canal Walk parallels the north bank of the James River from 17th St. on the east to 5th St. on the west, and features interpretive displays and wonderful vantage points of the James River as well as some of Richmond’s early 20th century industrial buildings. The public pathway is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For more information, search for the Canal Walk in the official tourism website for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The canal area is the site of many public festivities, concerts, and after-hours events. Brown’s Island, a popular spot for outdoor recreation and music events, is open from sunrise to sunset. The James River Park offers a variety of activities.

The James River and Kanawha Canal Pumphouse and the Tidewater Connection Locks have been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey.

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