“far from being a contracted ditch” — Maryland and Delaware State Quarter Coins

Today, the Maryland and Delaware State Quarter Coins remember the formal opening of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal on October 17, 1829.

At a cost of $2,250,000, or $161,000 per mile in 1820s dollars, the canal was costly to build yet beneficial to shipping goods among the north east corridor.

The following article gives the particulars of the original canal and arguments for maintaining it for the newer and larger vessels to use.


From The Railroad and Engineering Journal of December 1892:


The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

(Condensed from lecture by Professor Lewis M. Haupt before the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.)

The peninsula separating the Chesapeake from the Delaware extends southwardly 175 miles from the narrow neck of land which the canal traverses, while the distance across is but 13 5/8 miles.

Prior to the railroad era the importance of piercing this barrier and thus saving over 300 miles in the journey from Philadelphia to Baltimore by water was fully realized.

The Canal Company was incorporated in Maryland in 1799, and work was begun in 1804, but little progress was made until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.

Judge Benjamin Wright was then appointed Consulting Engineer, and pushed the work so vigorously that in September, 1829, barges passed through, and on October 17, 1829, it was officially opened with imposing ceremonies.

The magnitude of this undertaking at so early a date can scarcely be appreciated at the present stage of applied science.

In the “Deep Cut,” which is nearly 4 miles long and 76 ft. deep at its highest point, there were 3,500,000 cubic yards of earth which were removed and deposited beyond the sides of the cut, making the present height in some places 100 ft.

There were difficulties from landslides and bottomless marshes, so that the excavation and fill exceeded the original amount by over 10 percent, yet the entire work was rapidly completed at a cost of $2,250,000, or $161,000 per mile.

The general dimensions of the trunk of this original canal were the same as those of today: 66 ft. wide at the surface, 36 ft. at the bottom, and 10 ft. deep, while the locks were 100 ft. long and 22 ft. wide ; but in 1854, or a quarter century later, they were enlarged to 220 ft. in length by 24 ft. in width, which dimensions they still retain, although much too small for the vessels of today.

There are two levels to surmount; the first extending from Delaware City, where there is a tidal lock of 6 ft. lift, to St. George’s, 4 1/2 miles; the second reaches from St. George’s lock, with its 10 ft. lift, to Chesapeake City, about 9 miles.

Here there is a single lock of 16 ft. descent into Back Creek, a tributary of Elk River, which in turn debouches into the bay.

The route passes through a rich agricultural country, and the channel is far from being a contracted ditch, such as the name canal generally suggests.

With the exception of the pass through the defile of the Deep Cut, it is a succession of pools and broad streams, varying in width from a few hundred feet to nearly a quarter of a mile, and for a large part of the distance the tow-path does not conform to the sinuous banks, but winds gracefully along an embankment placed in mid-stream.

These features are mentioned because they are peculiar to this line, and form exceptionally favorable conditions in the project of enlargement.

For 63 years this waterway has continued to perform a valuable service, but in the race for supremacy, and the expansion which has taken place in the capacity of vessels, it has gradually fallen to the rear, until now it may be said to be antiquated and unable to fulfill the purpose of its builders. . . .

In every engineering enterprise it is important to sit down first and count the cost as well as the revenue.

This has been done on the part of the Government, and it is estimated at over $7,000,000; but of this amount $3,249,664 was for dredging in the approaches, and $4,355,808 was for the canal 100 ft. wide, its locks, bridges and other works, including land damages.

These dimensions are, however, unnecessarily wide for the present, especially in view of the shortness of the Deep Cut.

There is no need of a double track through these four miles, and hence a smaller section would prove just as effective and much cheaper.

The Suez Canal is but 72 ft. wide at bottom, and the Amsterdam 86 ft., while the Sault, which today outranks in tonnage any canal in the world, was only 64 ft. wide and 13 ft. deep up to the date of its enlargement, which was completed in 1882.

The present dimensions are 108 ft. wide at the narrowest part, increasing to 500 just above the lock, and 16 ft. deep, the section being rectangular.

By a reduction of width to a limit sufficient to pass the largest ocean-going vessels in single file, the cost of construction may be kept within $3,000,000 for the 14-mile canal, while the revenue would be derived from the entire foreign commerce of Baltimore going to Northern and Eastern ports, which is 90 percent, of the total, and a large local and coastwise tonnage, all of which aggregate for the two bays, 27,000,000 tons.

Of this amount 20 percent, would no doubt traverse the canal. This at the low rate of 15 cents per ton would produce a revenue of $810,000.

After deducting expenses it should leave not less than 15 percent, for dividends and interest on the capital.

As the economic value of a waterway is dependent upon the ratio of its length (and hence its cost) to the distance saved, it will be seen by comparison that there are only two canals in the world which surpass this one in this particular — they are the Suez and the proposed Nicaragua.

The Suez Canal, 100 miles long, saves 3,750 miles. Its length is therefore nearly 3 percent, of the distance saved.

The Nicaragua, 169 miles long, is less than 2 percent, of the 10,000 miles which it would save.

The Chesapeake & Delaware is but 4 percent, of its greatest saving.

The North Sea & Baltic, 61 miles long, is 27 percent, of distance saved.

The length of the Florida Ship Canal would equal 29 percent, of the distance cut off, but as it would be 169 miles long and transit through it would be slow, the economy in time would be only 12 hours between New York and New Orleans.

The length of the Amsterdam Canal is 42 per cent, of the former route.

In short, it would seem that there are but few if any places on the face of the globe where so small an expenditure of capital gives promise of such large and immediate returns, where there is so large a commerce in sight in the adjacent and tributary waters, where the benefits to the overland lines of transportation will be so great and where the work will be of the utmost practical utility to the Government in increasing the efficiency of its naval force in time of war, and a potent factor in removing cause for war with any foreign power in times of peace.

In fact its construction becomes a matter of necessity if we hope to keep pace with and aid in the symmetrical development of the commercial interests of our country as a whole.


The Maryland and Delaware State Quarter Coins show with an image of the topography of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, circa 1820s.

Maryland and Delaware State Quarter Coins