Reading Brooke Hindle on the steamboat got me thinking about the history of canals in the US. There do seem to be some essential sources in our library:
 AUTHOR       Shaw, Ronald E.
 TITLE        Canals for a nation : the canal era in the United States, 1790-
                1860 / Ronald E. Shaw.
 PUBLISHER    Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c1990.
 SUBJECT      Canals -- United States -- History.
              Inland navigation -- United States -- History.
 Science Library        TC623 .S53 1990
The Canal Era was a major phase of America's 19th c. transportation revolution. Canals lowered transportation costs, carried a vast grain trade from western farms to eastern ports, and delivered Pennsylvania coal to New Jersey and New York. They created new towns and cities and contributed to American economic growth ...audacious achievements of engineering and construction, often in nearly impossible terrain..." (from the Preface, p. ix)

Also an extensive 'bibligraphical essay' at the end)

 AUTHOR       Harlow, Alvin F. (Alvin Fay), 1875-1963.
 TITLE        Old towpaths; the story of the American canal era, by Alvin F.
 PUBLISHER    New York and London, D. Appleton and company, 1926.
 SUBJECT      Canals -- United States.
 Leyburn-Spec Coll-Rare TC623 .H3

 AUTHOR       Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.
 TITLE        Records of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society (bulk
 DESCRIPT     .8 linear ft. (2 boxes)
 NOTE         Society formed to preserve and enhance Virginia's inland
                waterways heritage.
              Finding aid in the repository.
 SUMMARY      Papers concerning the operation and interests of the 
Society from the collection of Richard R. Fletcher, Society Trustee.  The
focus of the Society's research and meetings is on river canals and boat 
traffic of nineteenth century Virginia.  Includes the Society's 
publications, The Tiller and The Sweep, membership lists, and the 
correspondence of Richard Fletcher.  Recipients of Fletcher's 
correspondence include T. Gibson Hobbs, Jr., George W. Higgs, Jr., 
Russell Harding, and Dr. William E. Trout, III.  The collection is 
concentrated on the period, 1978-1983.  There is material included from 
the American Canal Society.
 SUBJECT      Canals -- Virginia -- 19th century.
 Leyburn-Special Coll.  Mss. 172

 AUTHOR       Butler, Lauren L.
 TITLE        'Splendid failures' : the meaning of the James River and Kanawha
                Canal and the North River navigation in nineteenth century
                Rockbridge / Lauren L. Butler.
 PUBLISHER    [Lexington, Va.] : Stonewall Jackson House, 1985.
 SUBJECT      Rockbridge County (Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
              Canals -- Virginia -- History.
              Kanawha Canal (Va.) -- History.
              James River and Kanawha Canal.
 Leyburn-Spec Coll-Rare F232.R68 B87 1985

Happened upon this:
On October 10, 1784, George Washington wrote Benjamin Harrison outlining the importance of improving transportation between the east and the west. His letter stated: "But smooth the road, and make the way for them (the western settlers) 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." It was the dream of Washington and other great leaders. While other dreamed, Washington acted.

In 1785, Washington appeared before the General Assembly in Virginia to further his plans for internal improvements in the Commonwealth. At his insistence, the James River Company was incorporated and he was voted the first president. Since George Washington had duties relative to the C&O Canal along the Potomac River, Edmund Randolph became the acting president. The trustees were authorized and empowered to take and receive subscriptions to carry out the purpose of clearing the falls and construct canals, and build locks, if necessary.

The James River Company having successfully raised the necessary funds to begin their work. They increased traffic by improving the riverbed, blasting through rock ledges, deepening the channel, clearing downed trees and building a seven mile canal around the dangerous falls above Richmond continuing up another twenty miles to Maiden's Adventure.

It was the first operating canal system with locks in the United States and a vital commercial link needed to bind the Ohio and Mississippi valleys with the United States, instead of with France or Spain. One more important improvement remained to be completed. The nightmare on the trip was still Balcony Falls. In this four mile pass, the James River drops 200 feet and the channel is full of rocks. The few batteaumen who could take a batteau through "Bal-co-ny" were in much demand. Pig Iron, a standard cargo in those years, was recovered in great quantities from the river bottom in this area. Plaqued by ineffeciency, the company was taken over by the state and a new engineer, Claudius Crozet, was appointed. A crew of mostly Irish and Scottish workers completed the Balcony Falls Canal in 1828. The canal had been extended about seven and a half miles along the northern bank of the river in the James River Gorge through the Blue Ridge Mountains, just west of Lynchburg.

Virginia led in the adoption of the Constitution as it had in the revolution. George Washington presided over the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The "Virginia Plan for the Union" submitted by its delegation became the basis of the convention's work, and James Madison was perhaps the most effective member of the convention. Virginia's own ratification of the resulting document was, however, bitterly contested by the western small farmers group under Patrick Henry's leadership, and came by only a narrow margin on June 25, 1788, after commitments had been made to submit a bill of rights as a series of amendments. Jefferson's election in 1800 initiated a quarter century of control of the presidency by the "Virginia dynasty" (Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) and fixed their liberal agricultural programs firmly in American political tradition.

Prior to 1800, the navigation of the James River was improved by the introduction of sluice navigation created by building wing dams two thirds of the way over the river to throw an increased volume of water over the best channels at the rapids. During an 1808 report written by Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin of the Jefferson Administration on transportaiton, he stated that the James River Sluice Navigation was one of the best in the country. By 1816, sluice navigation was opened for batteaux as far upstream as Lynchburg. Now the James River could be navigated as far north as Buchanan. Dr. Morse's Gazette, published in 1826, stated that boats drawing twelve inches of water could ascend to that point." These improvements made continuous navigation possible for 220 miles west of Richmond. At Buchanan, the river route connected with the Midland Trail over the Alleghanies which had been surveyed and opened by Andrew Lewis, a contemporary of George Washington and fellow surveyor, who had mapped out this part of the country for a land company owned by his father and other wealthy planters in the early 1750's.

This method of navigation also stepped up the movement of freight and the increase of trade and the encouragement of manufacturing and industry. Not only did the batteau haul tobacco, but also iron from the new Oxford furnace, six miles down the river from Lynchburg. This meant more batteaux building yards and a greater increase in the number of trained watermen. The batteau lines were often manned by freedom loving, foot loose type of independent white men. Some of the free negros owned their own batteaux. Toward the later end of the era some of the large freight lines were entirely manned by specially trained negro hands. These men were experts in their work. It is clear from the James River Company's 1818 survey that "taking a loaded batteau down to Richmond was still hard, dangerous work with no guarantee of success". For the next eighty years, batteaux and later canal packet boats and freighters dominated the moving of freight and people.

There were regular stop over spots on the James where batteaumen from many batteaux would gather at dark around campfires. Meals consisted of fixings made from salt pork and corn meal. Stories were told of the days' trials on the mighty James. The men also made music, sang songs and danced. "These were colorful times", Porte Crayon, the pen name of David Hunter Strother, wrote in Virginia Illustrated magazine in 1871, "There are no boats on the river now. This cursed canal has monopolized all that trade. I perceive, too, by that infernal fizzing and squalling, that they have a railroad in the bargain. Ah me! Twenty years ago these enemies of the picturesque had no existence. The river was then crowded with boats, and its shores alive with sable boatmen, such groups! such attitudes! such costume! such character!"

So important was the transportation of the James River by batteaux that the disruption of this system of freight carrying caused local depressions and hardships. The draught of 1808 caused a stoppage of transportation because of such complete low water in the James. By this time Lynchburg had already become a hugh tobacco market. The tobacco from the year before was hogshead rolled in from miles around to the overflowing warehouses. It could not be moved downriver so the buyers were shy about buying. As the money for the tobacco was not to be had, the planters had no money to turn over to the factors and traders for supplies for their plantations. Until the rains came again, it was hard times.

(from The James River Batteau and Festival History

See Board of Public Works: James River for some wonderful maps. And more at the general site: