Inspired by the English and Dutch systems of canals, Americans began to eye the possibility of man-made waterways early in their history. George Washington perhaps spurred the activity by publically wishing that Americans had "the wisdom to improve" our system of waterways. Nevertheless, by the 1790's, small canals were being attempted--slow to construct and under- financed, these canals were supported by such public luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Mifflin. Thus, despite the problems the canal builders found, improvement of the nation's waterways was inextricably linked with republican sentiment and nationalism.
Much of the difficulty in early canal building was simply a lack of elementary knowledge. Americans were not used to such improvements; engineers were either sent to England for training or, more often, expected to work out for themselves how to take a level, how to dig a channel, remove tree roots, dispose of tons of earth, mix underwater cement, create locks and a hundred other things. The fact that, for the most part, American engineers, surveyors, and laborers were able to build a system of canals from this beginning was widely hailed around the country as further proof that America was an inspired nation whose ingenuity would carry it far.
The earliest canal ventures began in Pennsylvania and Virginia with the common goal of improving transportation to the Ohio Valley. In 1791, the Pennsylvania legislature incorporated a private group of leading citizens and began work on the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal. An English engineer, William Weston, was brought to America to supervise construction. As with many canals, the work was done in sections, and the short "portage canal" at the Great Falls on the lower Susquehanna was complete first, in 1797, becoming the first working canal in Pennsylvania.
Similarly, building was begun on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, intended to connect the two bays, in 1803; there work continued until 1805 when the funds were exhausted. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all supported another venture begun in 1785, the Potomac Company. Originally intended to connect the Potomac to the Ohio River, the canal, like many early projects, was scaled back; it eventually came to act as an improvement for the Potomac trade. Numerous other small canals were begun with grand ambitions and became controlled partners to the larger rivers they followed.
It was not until 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal in New York that canal builders were vindicated. As the model for most subsequent canals, the Erie ushered in the canal era with great fanfare, proving to an excited nation caught up in the Great Jubiliee that the American economy and spirit could indeed benefit from a system of inland waterways.