The Shenandoah’s navigation and commerce… and forward thinking

Posted on August 30, 2013 by


While the literary world (readers and authors) of the Shenandoah Valley dominates my thinking recently, it’s necessary not to lose touch with the agriculture of the area. So, as part of my readings, I came across a really interesting (and lengthy) article that appears in the August 26, 1847 edition of the Virginia Free Press, titled “RIVER IMPROVEMENT”. Written by “A DELEGATE”, the letter was drafted in the aftermath of a convention in Front Royal, and sent to the Alexandria Gazette (by careful design, I feel). Read through the transcription, and I’ll follow-up with some thoughts at the end.

You have already published the proceedings of the Convention, called for the purpose of adopting proper measures for the improvement of the navigation of the Shenandoah River, which was held on Monday, August 2d, at Front Royal, the county town of Warren. I was much pleased to see the harmony, spirit and determination that governed the action of the meeting, and I shall only state in addition, that all present seemed determined, to press forward the improvement of the River with vigor, and only to be satisfied with a perfect improvement, by Locks, Dams and Canals, the propelling power to be steam.

I have thought that a statement showing the area, population, and productions of the section of the State to be benefited by this improvement, the probable amount of tonnage that will be transported yearly upon it, the cost of the work, the receipt from tolls, &c, and the probable yearly dividend that will be made upon the stock, would interest many of the readers of your valuable paper; and as I have lately collected some facts from the census of 1840, and other sources of information, I have concluded to five some of those facts in this communication. The counties to be principally benefited by this improvement are Clarke, Warren, Page, Shenandoah, Rockingham and Augusta, those counties being watered by the Shenandoah river, also a portion of Pendleton, Frederick and Jefferson counties, also watered by that noble river; a large trade may also be expected from that section of Loudoun, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Madison and Green[e] counties, lying on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. The area of the six counties first named is 2728 square miles; the population 52,251 whites, 12,617 slaves, 1,906 free colored. Total population 66,774.

The productions of those six counties were as follows, viz: 1,375,469 bushels of Wheat, 131,900 barrels of Flour, 1,795,649 bushels of Corn, 775,977 bushels of Oats, 279,842 bushels of Rye, 175,270 bushels of Potatoes, and 159,127 pounds of Wool. Thw quantity of Iron Manufactured, also taken from the census of 1840, was in Page county 1000 tons of cast iron, 439 tons of bar Iron; in Shenandoah county 1380 tons cast Iron, 276 tons bar Iron; and in Augusta county 1000 tons of cast Iron; and 151 tons of bar Iron, making the total number of tons of cast Iron manufactured 3380, and of bar Iron 866 tons.

I will now suppose that there will be consumed in the above six counties, the following amount of the productions of those counties, viz: 26,125 barrels of Flour, or one half barrel to each white man, woman and child inhabiting those Counties. All the Oats, Rye, Potatoes, Pork, Bacon, Bran, Shipstuff [?], Hay, 1,545,649 bushels of Corn, all the Wool, 2630 tons of cast Iron; and 666 tons of bar Iron. Then there will remain for market, the following amount of surplus productions:

Flour,  105,775 barrels or   10,577 tons.
Wheat 715,969 bushels or  19,177 ”
Corn,   250,000 ” or              6,250 ”
Cast Iron    750 ”
Bar Iron      200 ”

The total descending tonnage ———-
being from those 6 counties 39,954 ”

I have no correct data for forming a correct estimate of the Ascending tonnage of those counties, but will state it at one fourth of the amount of the Descending tonnage; this quantity or proportion being the average upon works of Internal Improvment, depending upon Agricultural support alone for their trade. Then the tonnage upon the Shenandoah river from those six counties will stand as follows, viz:
Total amt of Descending tonnage 36,954 tons.
”      ”   of Ascending tonnage     9,238  ”
Total amount of tonnage 46,192

Now we may safely state from the Trade from Loudoun, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Madison, Green, Pendleton, Frederick and Jefferson Counties, with the heavy trade that may be expected in merchandize from the tide water cities towards the James River line of Improvement, the Ohio River, South Western Virginia and Tennessee, with the trade that may be expected from South Western Virginia, in Iron, Copper, Lead, Plaister, &c., at 13,808 tons, making the total tonnage, that may be expected upon the Shenandoah river, equal to 60,000 tons yearly. We may confidently calculate upon the trade increading, for the number of tons of Iron manufactured, will be greatly increased over the present number produced, because of the greater facilities offered for transportation to market. The white and yellow Pine, the Locust, Black Walnut and arbor Timber will become a heavy article in the Descending tonnage. We may also expect a large addition to the Descending tonnage from the Coal field lately discovered on the Shenandoah river near Port Republic, a vein having been opened, said to be 14 feet thickness, and from the specimen I have seen, I have no doubt but that it will prove one of the most valuable varieties of Bituminous Coal, equal, if not superior to the famed Cumberland Coal, having a high polish, foirm, clean burning without much smoke, with a pleasant odor, having little if any sulphur in its composition and I should judge, a very large percent of carbon.

From all these favorable circumstances, I have not the slightest doubt, but that the trade upon this River will exceed 80,000 tons yearly.

The Descending tonnage from the six Counties, first [illegible] amounting to 36,954 tons, will load 739 canal boats of 50 tons each, or 370 boats of 100 tons each, or load 100 ships of 370 tons…

Another source of revenue will be for passengers; we may expect 50 passengers… 13,500 yearly.

The extended portion of the Delegate’s thoughts are found on page 3, of the same edition of the VFP:

… I intend to notice the plan proposed for the improvement of the Shenandoah river, the probable cost of the work, the amount of the receipts that may be expected to be received from tolls, &c., the yearly expenditure to keep the works in order, and the probable value of the stock, or the probable yearly dividends upon the stock.

The Shenandoah river is at present navigable as high up as Port Republic for batteaux carrying 150 barrels, by a very imperfect system of sluice navigation, connected with a very imperfect system of lock and dam improvement around the Little Falls, beginning at a point about eight miles above Harpers Ferry, and continuing to the mouth of the river. These boats cost up the river about $25; they descend the river to harpers Ferry, where their cargoes are discharged and the boats are sold for about $5 for lumber, the boatmen returning home on foot. Such is the state of naviagation at present, and to improve it and make it equal to the wants of the beautiful and productive Valley watered by that noble river, was the object of the Front Royal Convention, that met on the 2d of this month.

I conversed with several gentlemen, delegates to the Convention, and but one feeling seemed to be entertained by them in relation to this improvement, and that was that the irmpovement demanded by the wants of the Valley and the nature of the river, was a slackwater navigagion, the works to be substantial, the locks to be of the size of those erected upon the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, finished in a plain manner, without any useless expense being incurred, and the propelling power to be steam. Some seemed to be in favor of a combination of lock and sam, with the sluice navigation, advocating the opening and deepening of the channel, and construction of sluices by Wing Walls.

Those persons that seemed to be in favor of the sluice system seemed to doubt if a sufficient amount of funds could be raised to form a slackwater system throughout; hence their preference for the sluice improvement – the capital stock authorized by the new Shenandoah Company being $500,000, and a slackwater system of a size admitting of a steamboat navigation being known to require a larger sum to finsih the same up to Port Republic.

At this point, it seemed senseless to me to continue the transcription.

Essentially, what I am seeing are unrealistic goals of some who seemed to think the Shenandoah River could be put on par with what was seen with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Potomac River. Is that simply me looking at this with the “advantage” of looking back at all of the history that unfolded after? Not necessarily. Even at that point in time, there were those who could see the writing on the wall. The days of the canals were numbered because of the ever-expanding system of railroads. A new canal project that probably wouldn’t get underway until the early 1850s, just seems incredibly costly, for a number of reasons. Needless to say, this “river improvement plan” did not unfold.

The improvements to navigation of the river aside, there’s something I see here that strikes me as much more important… especially when thinking about the Civil War… which was another fourteen years away.

First, take-in those numbers showing outgoing agricultural products. We can certainly get a good sense of what was king in the Shenandoah… grain and iron… and these were just the figures from 1840.

Then, consider these products and where they were going… north down the natural flow of the Shenandoah River to Harpers Ferry, where items transported could be shifted to one of two major transportation arteries in the region… the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal AND the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. From this point, the majority of the goods headed east, to various markets in and around Washington and Baltimore.

This flow was critical to the economy of the Shenandoah Valley. If it was altered or flat-out cut-off, the impact could most certainly be felt.

With the threat of war, what did those in agriculture and iron see on the horizon? Opportunity in the new government for continued (or improved) success… or failure?

Secession, especially without the promise of Maryland following suit, would seemingly ruin a practice maintained for many years. How many farmers were really willing to take that gamble? While they might, technically, be able to sustain themselves, the war was going to make an impact on financial yields previously experienced because of that flow to markets outside the Valley.

But, again, at this point, in 1847, the war was… with no indication of such a thing on the horizon… fourteen years away.


For another post about 19th century boating on the Shenandoah, see here.