The canal was built for the transportation of lead ore from the Peak District to the Trent, and from there to the rest of the country. Engineered by James Brindley, it served the coalfields and quarries of South Yorkshire. The stone for the Palace of Westminster was quarried in South Anston, Rotherham, and transported via the canal.
The building of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway line parallel to the canal (1849) left much of the navigation redundant, and the Worksop - Chesterfield stretch ceased to serve commercial traffic in 1908, when problems with mining subsidence necessitated the closure of the 3,102 yard long Norwood Tunnel, Kiveton Park. At the time of construction, Norwood Tunnel was the joint longest canal tunnel in Britain, and it was sixth longest by the time it collapsed. The stretch between the tunnel and Worksop subsequently fell into ruin and became un-navigable, while parts of the isolated section from the tunnel to Chesterfield were infilled and redeveloped. Parts of the canal near Chesterfield are still navigable but are isolated from other waterways.