Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 17: Roads and Canals

Chapter 17. Records of the Public Works Committees

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Records of the Committees Relating to Public Works (1815-1988) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee records described in this chapter.
Committee on Roads and Canals (1831-69)

Jurisdiction and History

17.2 The committee originated as a select Committee on Roads and Canals during the 14th Congress (1815) and was appointed at each succeeding Congress until December 1831 when Charles Mercer of Virginia made a motion to establish a standing committee on the subject. Although an objection was raisedthat the select committee had managed the subject adequately, and that the establishment of a standing committee on roads and canals would "lead to the impression that the House was disposed to systematize internal improvement, and with it the present high duties on imports, &c.,'' the motion to create the standing committee passed by a vote of 96 to 90.1 During the 25th Congress (1837-39) the House rejected a proposal to change the name to the Committee on Public Improvement, but in 1869 it approved a motion to change the name to the Committee on Railways and Canals, the records of which are described later in this chapter.

17.3 The committee reported legislation concerning the survey, construction, and improvementof canals within the United States as well as a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The committee'sjurisdiction also included improvements in river navigation, construction of bridges over rivers, maintenanceof breakwaters and harbors associated with water routes, and the subscription of the United States to capitalstock in canal companies. It reported proposals for the construction of roads, such as the Cumberland Roadand a Columbus and Sandusky Turnpike, and methods of financing them, primarily through land-grants. As early as the 20th Congress (1827-28) the committee reported legislation to aid the construction of railroads including the granting of charters to railroad companies.

Records of the Select and Standing Committees on Roads and Canals, (1815-1869)

Record TypeVolumeCongresses (Dates)
Minute Books1 vol.40th (1867-69)
Docket Books4 vol.31st (1849-51), 33rd-34th (1853-57), 40th (1867-69)
Petitions and Memorials5 ft.14th-20th (1815-29), 22nd-40th (1831-69)
Committee Papers1 ft.14th (1815-17), 16th-20th (1819-29), 23nd-32nd (1833-53), 40th (1867-69)
TOTAL:6 ft. and 5 vol. (5 in.) 
Committee Records Summary Table

17.4 The sole minute book contains brief entries on 45 meetings held during the 40th Congress between December 1867 and February 1869.

17.5 Most of the chronologically listed entries in the docket book for the 31st Congress (1849-51) are for petitions and memorials rather than for bills. Docket entries for the 33d and 40th Congresses are also listed in chronological order. The volume for the 34th Congress (1855-57) contains 14 entries arranged in alphabetical order by State.

From the Memorial and sketch from Hancock County, Illinois, praying for a sum of money to improve the navigation of the Mississippi River at the Des Moines Rapids, ca.1835 (HR24A-G19.5), from NARA's National Archives Catalog  

17.6 More than half of the petitions and memorials are from the 20th through the 25th Congresses (1827-39). Petitions from this period called for the surveying, construction and/or Government purchase of specific canals and roads, including the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (14A-F14.1, 16A-G19.1), the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (19A-G19.1, 23A-G18.1), the Louisville and Portland Canal (23A-G18.2, 24A-G19.1, 25A-G21.1), and roads from Columbus, OH, to Frankfort, KY (24A-G19.6), from Springfield, OH, to Richmond, IN, (24A-G19.7) and from Zanesville, OH to Maysville, KY (24A-G19.8). Other subjects in the petition and memorial file include the construction of a canal around the falls of the Ohio River on the Indiana side, 1837-56 (24A-G19.2, 25A-G21.1, 26A-G23.1, 27A-G23.1, 29A-G20.2, 32A-G22.3, 33A-G23.2, 34A-G20.1) and one around Niagara Falls, 1837-64 (25A-G21.1, 26A-G23.1, 33A-G23.1, 37A-G18.2, 38A-G22.1); and the building of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, 1849-63 (31A-G21.1, 32A-G22.2, 37A-G18.2). Petitions from the 29th Congress (1845-47) illustrate the diversity of subjects that the committee considered--bridges, canals, railroads, river and harbor surveys and improvements, and roads (29A-G20.1 through 29A-G20.5). Many of the petitions and memorials referred to the committee are prefaced with a statement that since the public debt was being retired, funds could be used for internal improvements.

17.7 The committee papers--primarily correspondence and committee reports--are most numerous for the 19th, 20th, and 23d Congresses (1825-29 and 1833-35). Two of the subjects with greatest documentation are the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (19A-D20.1) and a proposed stone bridge across the Potomac at Washington, DC (23A-D20.1); the files include plans, estimates of costs, reports and correspondence. A general file on canals from the 20th Congress (20A-D22.2) contains documents concerning the construction of the Blackstone Canal between Providence, RI, and Worcester, MA. Subjects in committee papers often refer directly to counterparts in the petitions and memorials files.

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1 Register of Debates, 22d Cong., 1st sess., Dec. 13, 1831, p. 1438.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.