These canals and locks are a part of the first extensive system of canal and river navigation works undertaken in the United States. The idea for the canal was proposed by George Washington, when, as an engineer, surveyor and military emissary for Virginia, he saw the need for a trade route west beyond the Allegheny Mountains. In order to do create this route, it was necessary to try to tame the Potomac River which was a wild, unruly stream which only the hardiest of rivermen ever attempted.
Before the Davis Island Lock & Dam were built, the flow of the Ohio River slowed to little more than a trickle during dry periods. For several months each year, the unreliable flow stranded Pittsburgh's steamboats, towboats, and barges.
The Davis Island Lock & Chanoine Dam experimental project was the first lock and dam ever constructed on the Ohio River. Its achievements also included the first rolling lock gates, the largest movable dam built in the 19th century, and the widest chamber in world history.
Spearheaded by Hugh Cooper, the Keokuk Dam & Power Plant served as a prototype for many future power plants. The project harnessed the hydropower of the Mississippi River, between Keokuk, Iowa and Hamilton, Illinois.
The crest of the dam is nearly a mile long. The dam structure features 119 arch spans between six-foot-thick piers and a 110-foot-wide pneumatic lock. Combined with the lock, the dam reduced travel time for steamboats by nearly two hours.
Most of the locks were 184 feet long and 36 feet wide, able to handle boats up to 160 feet long. The sandstone locks (along with wood miter gates, rock-filled timber-crib dams and bypass canals with guard gates) created a slackwater navigation system stretching over 90 miles.