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Associate Professor of History, The Pennsylvania State College











THIS monograph is a study of a phase of internal im-
provements in Virginia extending over a period of ninety-
five years. The length of the road traversed warned the
author not to attempt more than brief excursions into
neighboring fields, however inviting these might be. De-
siring to make some slight contribution to the history of
his native state, he has sought to throw additional light
upon a subject apparently obscure and to clear away the
misconceptions which have enveloped it.

The James River and Kanawha Company was Virginia's
bid for the western trade, and the works that it constructed,
of which the canal was only a part, formed the chief com-
mercial artery of the state in ante bellum times. As such
it is entitled to have its story told, and the purpose is to tell
it not so much from the point of view of an agency of
transportation as from that of a great ideal conceived by
Washington, fostered by Marshall, and partially carried
out by Cabell and his successors.

For assistance in preparing his little book the author is
indebted chiefly to Professors William A. Dunning and
Dixon Ryan Fox, of Columbia University. To Professor
Dunning, under whose guidance the work was undertaken,
he is indebted for wise counsel and kindly aid. To Pro-
fessor Fox he is under special obligation for a careful read-
ing of the manuscript and for many helpful criticisms as to
form and content. Acknowledgment is made of the cour-
teous co-operation of Dr. H. R. Mclwaine and his assist-


6 PREFACE [246

ants at the Virginia State Library, where most of the in-
vestigation was pursued. For the imperfections of the
monograph the author alone is responsible.




Origin of the Conception of Connecting Virginia with the West. . 9

The James River Company as a Private Corporation, 1785-1820. . 21


The Second James River Company; or the James River Company
as a State Enterprise, 1820-1835 48


The Incorporation and Organization of the James River and Kan-
awha Company, 1832-1835 92


The Completion of the James River and Kanawha Canal to Bu-
chanan, 1835-1851 123


The James River and Kanawha Company at the Height of its Ac-
tivities, 1850-1860 163


The Effect of the Civil War on the Fortunes of the James River
and Kanawha Company; the Attempt to Enlist Federal Aid'and
its Failure, 1861-1875 205


Closing Days of the Canal; its Sale and Abandonment, 1875-1880. 226


INDEX ,' i ",..... 247

VITA ...;... 253

247] 7



THE History of the James River and Kanawha Com-
pany, broadly conceived, is the story of an enterprise which
was intimately interwoven with the economic life of Vir-
ginia for nearly a century. It was easily the most import-
ant of the many internal improvements fostered by the
state prior to the Civil War, and forms a significant chapter
in the larger story of pioneer America with its advancing
frontier and its increasing need of markets and transporta-
tion facilities.

The idea of connecting the eastern-flowing waters of
Virginia with those flowing westward to the Mississippi
early found lodgment in the minds of her far-sighted men,
and remained a cherished ideal for many years. This con-
ception is supposed by antiquarians to have originated with
Governor Spotswood when on his famous exploring tour
to the Blue Ridge in 1716, but the proof of this is purely
inferential. 1 The first recorded suggestion of a through line
of this nature is found in a letter of Rev. James Maury,
who had been one of the companions of Governor Spots-
wood in his transmontane expedition. 2 This letter, written
to an uncle of Maury, under date of Jan. 10, 1756, was

1 Correspondence of the President of the James River and Kanawha
Company with an association of French Capitalists (Richmond, 1860),
P. 5-


249] 9


suggested by a new map which had recently appeared, and
declared :

When it is considered how far the eastern branches of the
Mississippi extend eastward, and how near they come to the
navigable, or rather canalable parts of the rivers which empty
themselves into the sea that washes our shores to the east,
it seems highly probable that its western branches reach as far
the other way and make as near approaches to rivers empty-
ing themselves into the ocean to the west of us .... across
which a short and easy communication .... short in com-
parison with the present route thither, opens itself to the navi-
gation from that shore of the continent unto the eastern
Indies. 1

This letter is interesting as showing how the idea of con-
necting the east with the west by uniting the upper reaches
of the eastward and westward-flowing rivers had at an
early date begun to enter the minds of prominent Virgin-
ians; and, incidentally, as revealing how little was known
of the geography of the west at that time.

The man who first aroused his countrymen to the im-
portance of joining the east and the west by suitable trans-
portation facilities was none other than George Washington,
who knew the west more thoroughly than most of his con-
temporaries and was our first great expansionist. In his
youth he was an explorer of the saddle-bags and surveying-
instruments variety. At a later period he became still more
interested in the western country for economic and political
reasons and, as a practical statesman, was the first American
to outline a comprehensive policy of western expansion and
internal improvement. Beginning his acquaintance with
the west at the age of sixteen as a surveyor of the im-
mense estates of Lord Fairfax in the valleys of the Alle-
ghanies in 1748, and gaining further information of its

1 Correspondence of the President of the James River and Kanawha
Company with an association of French Capitalists, pp. 5-6.


nature and possibilities in his mission to the French forts
as an envoy of Governor Dinwiddie in 1753, he made no
less than four additional exploring tours beyond the Alle-
ghanies and thereby acquired an intimate knowledge of the

It appears probable that Washington, upon his return to
Williamsburg from his mission as envoy of Governor Din-
widdie, urged upon the governor and his council the im-
portance of connecting the east with the west by a public
highway, on the ground that if England were to hold the
west she must have a passageway to it; but inasmuch as
the project involved great expense, no serious considera-
tion was given to it. 1 Certain it is, however, that from this
time it remained a favorite project of Washington, and that
he lost no good opportunity to bring it prominently for-
ward. He discussed it repeatedly with his friends, referred
to it in his letters and published in the colonial gazette
extracts from his journals bearing on the subject with
a view to arousing public interest in the project. 2 The
more he learned of the west by his repeated visits beyond
the Alleghanies the greater became his ardor for connecting 1
it with the east.

When Washington made his western tour in 1774, he
was surprised to find the change that had recently taken
place in the valley of the Ohio. Instead of encountering
an occasional trapper or trader, as on his previous tours,
he found immigrants occupying that region in considerable
numbers. 3 Regarding the opening of a public highway
between the east and the west as a matter of first import-
ance and believing the conditions to be ripe for legislative

1 Pickell, John, A New Chapter in the Early Life of Washington
(New York, 1856), p. 19.

2 Correspondence of the President of the J. R. & K. Co., etc., p. 6.
'Hulbert, A. B., Washington's Road (Cleveland, 1903), p. 192.


action, Washington brought the subject before the House
of Burgesses at its regular session in 1774. The As-
sembly did not receive it with the favor he thought it
merited, the principal grounds of objection being the ex-
pense involved and doubts as to the practicability of the
scheme. Washington now changed his original plan, which
had contemplated effecting the improvement at public ex-
pense, and introduced a bill to empower individuals to un-
dertake the extension of the navigation of the Potomac
from tidewater to Will's Creek, a distance of about one
hundred and fifty miles. The bill encountered consider-
able opposition from the burgesses of central and southern
Virginia, who conceived that it would prove beneficial only
to the northern section of the colony. To conciliate this
element an amendment was incorporated in the bill to in-
clude in its provisions the improvement of James River.
In this form it had a fair chance of passage and would
doubtless have become a law had not the session expired
prematurely and difficulties been encountered in securing 1
the concurrent action of the Maryland legislature with re-
ference to the Potomac. Before the project could be
matured fully, prospect of war with Great Britain diverted
attention from it and a decade elapsed before it could be
revived. 1

After the Revolution Washington returned with renewed
ardor to his scheme, more impressed than ever with the
importance of connecting the east with the west and of ad-
opting a system of internal improvement, as a measure of
national concern. He carried on a considerable correspon-
dence on the subject, advocating the policy on the broad
ground of the general welfare. 2 On Sept. i, 1784, Wash-

1 Pickell, op. cit., p. 29 ; also Hulbert, Washington's Road, p. 192 ; vide
also, Washington's letter to Thomas Jefferson, March 29, 1784, The
Writings of George Washington (Ford, N. Y. and London, 1889), vol.
x, pp. 375-6.

2 Pickell, op. cit., p. 34.


ington left Mount Vernon for a tour of the trans-Alle-
ghany country, partly for the purpose of examining the con-
dition of his lands in that region and partly to satisfy him-
self more fully of " the practicability of opening a com-
munication between the headwaters of the rivers running
eastward into the Atlantic, and those that flow westward
into the Ohio". 1 On this expedition he traveled six hun-
dred and fifty miles, mostly on horseback but frequently on
foot. Returning to Mount Vernon he transmitted a report
of his investigations to Governor Benjamin Harrison, to
whom he wrote a long letter containing the first general
outline of the system of internal improvements to be found
in the annals of the time and producing, as its first fruits,
prompt action by the Virginia Assembly. 2

Washington's letter to Governor Harrison, dated Oct.
10, 1784, was the outcome of his various expeditions to the
trans-Alleghany region and voices his profound conviction
as to the commercial and political expediency of opening
new channels of communication with the rapidly develop-
ing west. 8 It is one of the longest as well as one of the
most interesting and suggestive that he ever wrote. He
says, " It has long been my decided opinion that the shortest,
easiest, and least expensive communication with the invalu-
able and extensive country back of us would be by one or
both of the rivers of this state, which have their sources in
the Appalachian mountains." * He then proceeds to en-
umerate the objections likely to arise to his plan, of which
the chief was the jealousy existing between the different

1 Writings of George Washington (Sparks, Boston, 1837), vol. i, p. 408.

2 Pickell, op. cit., p. 38.

'For Washington's letter to Governor Harrison, vide, The Writings
of George Washington (Ford), vol. x, pp. 404-14.
'Ibid., p. 403.


sections of the commonwealth lest one part should obtain
an advantage over the others, and goes on to say :

Then follows a train of difficulties, namely, that our people
are already heavily taxed; that we have no money; that the
advantages of this trade are remote ; that the most direct route
for it is through other states, over whom we have no control ;
that the routes over which we have control are as distant as
either of those which lead to Philadelphia, Albany, or Mon-
treal; that a sufficient spirit of commerce does not pervade
the citizens of this commonwealth; that we are in fact doing
for others, what they ought to do for themselves. . . . x

After pointing out certain peculiar advantages possessed
by Virginia, he says : " We should do out part towards
opening the communication with the fur and peltry trade
of the Lakes, and for the produce of the country which lies
within, and which will .... be settled faster than any
one ever did, or any one would imagine." He is of the
opinion that self-interest is alone sufficient to arouse Vir-
ginians to their opportunity, but that political considera-
tions are even more impelling. In this connection he says :

I need not remark to you, Sir, that the flanks and rear of the
United States are possessed by other powers, and formidable
ones, too; nor how necessary it is to apply the cement of in-
terest to bind all parts of the Union together by indissoluble
bonds, especially that part which lies immediately west of us,
with the middle states. For what ties, let me ask, should we
have upon those people? How entirely unconnected with
them shall we be, and what troubles may we not apprehend,
if the Spaniards on their right, and Great Britain on their left,
instead of throwing stumbling-blocks in their way, as they
now do, should hold out lures for their trade and alliance?
What, when they get strength, which will be sooner than most

1 Washington's Writings (Ford), vol. x, p. 406.


people conceive (from the emigration of foreigners, who will
have no particular predilection towards us, as well as from
removal of our own citizens), will be the consequences of
their having formed close connexions with both or either of
those powers, in a commercial way? . . . , 1

The western settlers (I speak now from my own observa-
tion) stand as it were upon a pivot. The touch of a feather
would turn them any way. They have looked down the
Mississippi, until the Spaniards .... threw difficulties in
their way ; and they looked that way for no other reason, than
because they could glide gently down the stream .... and,
because they have no other means of coming to us but by
long land transportations and unimproved roads. These
causes have hitherto checked the industry of the present
settlers. . . . But smooth the road and make easy the way
for them, and see what an influx of articles will be poured
upon us; how amazingly our exports will be increased by
them, and how amply we shall be compensated for any trouble
and expense we may encounter to effect it.*

Washington then expressed the opinion that existing con-
ditions, especially the disposition of Great Britain to hold
the western posts as long as possible, made Virginia the
logical state to undertake these improvements; and that the
western inhabitants would do their part to further the pro-
ject. He said:

Weak as they are, they would meet us at least half way,
rather than be driven into the arms of or be made dependent
upon foreigners; which would eventually either bring on a
separation of them from us, or a war between the United
States and one or the other of those powers, most probably
the Spaniards.

He thought that the preliminary expense would be small

1 Washington's Writings (Ford), vol. x, pp. 406-7.
^Washington's Writings (Ford), vol. x, pp. 407-08.


and that at the same time the enterprise would serve to
attract the attention of the western settlers and to convince
them " of our disposition to connect ourselves with them,
and to facilitate their commerce with us 'V

Having enumerated the advantages likely to accrue from
the execution of his plan, Washington proceeded to re-
commend to Governor Harrison the appointment of com-
missioners of high character and ability to make a thorough
investigation of the matter and to present their findings to
the public. He said :

Let these commissioners make an actual survey of James
River and Potomac from tidewater to their respective sources ;
note with great accuracy the kind of navigation and the ob-
structions in it, the difficulty and expense attending the re-
moval of these obstructions, the distances from place to place
through their whole extent, and the nearest and best portages
between these waters and the streams capable of improve-
ment, which run into the Ohio, and with equal accuracy. The
navigation of this river (the Ohio) being well known, they
will have less to do in the examination of it; but nevertheless,
let the courses and distances be taken to the mouth of the
Muskingum, and up that river .... to the carrying place
to the Cuyoga ; down the Cuyoga to Lake Erie ; and thence to*
Detroit. Let them do the same thing with Big Beaver Creek
.... and with the Scioto also. In a word, let the waters
east and west of the Ohio, which invite our notice by their
proximity, and by the ease with which land transportation
may be had with them, and the Lakes on one side, and the
Rivers Potomac and James on the other, be explored, accur-
ately delineated, and a correct and connected map of the
whole be presented to the public. 2

Washington expressed his belief that if the foregoing

1 Washington's Writings (Ford), vol. x, pp. 409-10.
a Ibid., pp. 409-10.


were done, prejudices and jealousies would yield to the ob-
vious advantages revealed by the facts in the case. He sug-
gests that to avoid injurious consequences growing out of
delay, the Assembly might grant a sum of money towards
opening one or more of the nearest and best communica-
tions with the west, " and if there should appear a manifest
disposition in the Assembly to make it a public undertak-
ing, to incorporate and encourage private adventurers ....
for the purpose of extending the navigation of the Potomac
or James Rivers ; and in the former case to request the con-
currence of Maryland in the measure/' x He pointed out
that the produce of the settlements about Fort Pitt could
be brought to Alexandria by water, by the Youghiogheny-
Potomac route, a distance of three hundred and four miles,
of which only thirty-one miles would be by portage, and
added :

For my own part, I think it highly probable, that upon the
strictest scrutiny, if the Falls of the Great Kanhawa can be
made navigable, or a short portage be had there, it will be
found of equal importance and convenience to improve the
navigation of both the James and Potomac. The latter ....
affords the nearest communication with the Lakes ; but James
River may be more convenient for all the settlers below the
mouth of the Great Kanhawa, and for some distance perhaps
above the west of it .... Upon the whole, the object is in
my estimation of vast commercial and political importance. 2

To Washington's letter Governor Harrison replied, Nov.
13, 1784, strongly approving "your plan for opening the
navigation of the western waters ", and stated that he had
taken the liberty of laying the letter before the Assembly,
" who appear so impressed with the utility of the measure,

''Writings of George Washington (Ford), vol. x, p. 4>n.
3 Ibid., pp. 412-13.


that I dare say they will order the survey you propose im-
mediately, and will at their next sitting proceed to carry
the plan into execution V The Assembly referred Wash-
ington's communication, which was received with the great-
est respect, to an appropriate committee. The ablest and
most influential members of the Assembly rallied with en-
thusiasm to the support of Washington's views. 2 At this
stage of events Washington, accompanied by Lafayette,
paid a visit to Richmond and received a tremendous ova-
tion. There were many entertainments and much speech-
making in honor of these two distinguished men, the Legis-
lature being then in session. But amidst it all the great
business of promoting the internal improvements then in
contemplation was not forgotten. " The ardor of the
moment ", says Marshall, " was seized to conquer those
objections to the plan which yet lingered in the bosoms of
those who could perceive in it no future advantages to com-
pensate for the present expense ". 3 Nor did Washington,
to whom the project had now become a matter of primary
concern, fail to impress by private conversations its im-
portance upon leading members of the Assembly. Madison,
then a member of the Assembly, was much impressed with
the enthusiasm displayed by the General for his pet enter-
prise. In a letter to Jefferson, he says :

The earnestness with which he espouses the undertaking is
hardly to be described, and shows that a mind like his, capable
of great views and which has long been occupied with them,
cannot bear a vacancy; and surely he could not have chosen
an occupation more worthy of succeeding to that of establish-
ing the political rights of his country, than the patronage of

1 Writings of George Washington (Ford), vol. x, p. 415,

* Marshall, John, Life of George Washington (Phila., 1804-1807), voL.
v, p. 17.

* Marshall, Life of George Washington, vol. v, p. 17.


works for the extensive and lasting improvement of its natural
advantages; works which will double the value of half the
lands within the commonwealth, will extend its commerce,
link with its interests those of the western states, and lessen
the emigration of its citizens by enhancing the profitableness
of situation which they now desert in search of better.

Such was the origin of the conception of connecting Vir-
ginia with the west. To Washington is due the credit of
originating and fostering this movement in those early days
when it possessed for his countrymen all the charm of
novelty and seemed to contain within itself tremendous
potentialities. To his initiative was due the introduction
into the Virginia Assembly of the bills to incorporate the
Potomac Company and the James River Company, for the
improvement of the navigation of those two rivers and aim-
ing ultimately at the connecting by public highways of their
sources with the sources of the rivers flowing westward into
the Ohio, and thereby providing channels of communication
with the developing west. They were twin enterprises
fostered by the state and each has an interesting history.
Out of the Potomac Company grew the Chesapeake and
Ohio Canal Company and the canal it constructed, which
is still in operation. It fell short of accomplishing the
purpose Washington had cherished of a complete connec-
tion with the west ; but the Cumberland Road and later the
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad carried out his main idea for
that route and justified his fundamental plan. Out of the
James River Company sprang the James River and
Kanawha Company, with the canal and other works it con-
structed, including the highway from the sources of the
James to the Ohio river. This project also failed to
measure to the full standard of Washington's conception,

l The Writings of fames Madison (Hunt ed, N. Y. and London,
1901), vol. ii, pp. 104, 109.


but along the valley of the James and the general route of
the line of the James River and Kanawha Company's im-
provements runs the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, also
carrying out Washington's fundamental conception and ex-
emplifying his practical wisdom. The origin of both en-
terprises was due to Washington's early appreciation of
the future of our western territory, and to his counsels and
zeal in pressing its importance upon his countrymen.

We now turn to that phase of the general scheme of in-
ternal improvements thus inaugurated, as represented by
the James River Company and what grew out of that com-

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