Richmond’s Canal Walk features four centuries of our state capital’s history depicted through fascinating history medallions, statues and exhibits. Did you know that in 1888 Richmond built the first commercially successful electric streetcar system in the world? And that Richmond is the only city in the world with a triple main-line railroad crossing still in operation? Look for all of this along the Canal Walk. Don't forget about the Richmond Slave Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park or the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, and be sure to visit Box Brown Plaza on the Canal Walk, an exhibit chronicling African-Americans’ contributions to Richmond’s Riverfront.
Richmond, lying on the fall line of the James River, was destined for a history steeped in canal navigation. George Washington, a staunch proponent of canal transportation, appeared before the Virginia General Assembly in 1784 to support legislation to create a waterway to bypass the falls. By linking the James River with the Kanawha River in western Virginia, which in turn flowed into Ohio, he hoped to improve transportation and trade with the west. In 1785, the state incorporated the James River Company with Washington as the honorary president. The James River Company set to work constructing the first towpath canal system in North America. The first section of the canal system to be completed circumvented the seven-mile falls near Richmond.
By 1800, the Great Basin was situated in the heart of the city. Located partially under the present-day James Center, the basin was a hub of activity surrounded by mills and warehouses. In 1822, the Tidewater Connection was complete and boats could enter the canal below the falls. Wooden locks and the Richmond Dock connected the lower James to the Great Basin via canal to the upper James. The locks, however, were soon going to decay and later had to be replaced.
In 1820, the James River Company signed their charter over to the state, which controlled the company until 1835, when the James River and Kanawha Company took over the canal effort. By 1840 canal construction was complete from Richmond to Lynchburg and by 1851 had reached what would be its final destination — Buchanan in Botetourt County. At this point the canal system spanned 197 miles west. Finally, 1854 brought improvements to the Tidewater Connection: five granite locks (the fourth and fifth remain at Alcoa) and turning basins between 9th and 14th streets; the Richmond Docks, located between 14th and Pear streets; and the Great Ship Lock near Dock and Pear streets.
These improvements ushered in the heyday of the James River and Kanawha Canal. During the 1850s — and peaking in 1860 — canal traffic was at its busiest. As many as 195 boats regularly traversed the waters, bringing goods such as tobacco and wheat from western Virginia to market and returning home with finished goods from the city.
Passenger voyages made up a small percentage of boat traffic. Only six passenger boats — called packets — ran on a regular basis during this busy time. Packets could carry 30 to 40 people and took approximately 33 hours to reach Lynchburg via canal. From the packet office in the Great Basin, the boats poled out to 7th Street where they hitched up to a horse or mule. The animals pulled the boats along the towpath while a boatman steered from the rear. On nice days, passengers sat on the deck of the boat and enjoyed the leisurely journey.
All this came to an end as flooding, Civil War damage and competition from the expanding railroads eventually took a huge toll on the canals. By 1880 the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad was laying tracks along the towpath of the canal. Canal construction never reached the Kanawha River.
Completed in 1999, the current canal system on the north side of the river was constructed in conjunction with a Department of Public Utilities Combined Sewer Overflow project. A pipe measuring 1.3 miles and up to 8 feet in diameter was installed in the bed of the Haxall and Kanawha canals from west of the Lee Bridge eastward to 16th Street. The pipeline collects wastewater that, when the city sewers are overwhelmed, routes it to a 50-million gallon Shockoe retention basin until it can be treated at the wastewater treatment plant.
Stretching one-and-one-quarter-miles along the James River and the Kanawha and Haxall canals, the Canal Walk has access points at nearly every block between 5th and 17th streets. There are handicapped-accessible entrances at 5th, 10th, 12th, 14th and 16th streets.
Visit our partner site to learn about the many things to do along Richmond’s Riverfront Canal Walk.