What is: Shiprock Park, Richmond, VA

What was: Replacing locks built in 1816, the great lock was constructed in the 1850s. It is the lowest point that connects the James River with the Richmond Dock, completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system that bypassed seven miles of falls. The Great Ship Lock connected the navigable part of the James River with the Richmond city dock, which extended for ten blocks to the west. Ocean-going vessels were raised up from sea level to the level of the city dock which accommodated ships as large as 180 feet long by 35 feet wide.

Originally, George Washington was searching for a way to open a water route to the West. He believed that was the key to helping Virginia become an economic powerhouse in what would emerge as the United States. He surveyed and planned the original canal system to bypass the rocky rapids of the James River, intending for it to stretch all the way west to the Ohio River Valley. It only made it as far as Botetourt County in western Virginia, about 197 miles through Virginia’s western mountain ranges. The James River and Kanawha Canal was the most ambitious public works and engineering project in Virginia during the 19th century.

This canal served as an important transport hub for the tobacco, flour, wheat, fish, oats. Lime, coal and shingles. Flat-bottomed boats floated down the James to Richmond laden with tobacco, hogsheads and returned with French and English imports, furniture, dishes, and clothing.

After the American Civil War, funds for resuming construction were unavailable from either the war-torn Commonwealth or private sources and the project did poorly against railroad competition.The Railroads had emerged as a more efficient form of transportation, midway in the canal’s construction and ultimately the canal’s towpath became the roadbed for the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad, following the same course.