The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal

Be sure to check out the July program listings for events and activities on the Trails of History this month.

Today's post comes from Ryan Zsifkov, currently studying at East Stroudsburg University for a master's degree in history (he holds a BA in history (minor in anthropology) from Penn State). Ryan is serving an internship at the PA State Archives as part of the PHMC's Keystone Summer Internship Program. Thanks, Ryan, for sharing your research with Trailheads readers.


Canal_system_map
Map showing Pennsylvania's canals and rivers

The Pennsylvania Canal, a mostly forgotten piece of history, was at one time a significant component of the Commonwealth’s economy and an essential mode of transportation throughout the state. Spurred onward by competition from New York and the forward-thinking imagination of Pennsylvanian leaders, merchants, and industrialists, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was in existence for nearly seven decades before falling into disuse in the latter half of the 19th century.

Canal_boat_on_Delaware_Canal_RG-6
Delaware Canal above Upper Reans Eddy
(Record Group 6, PA State Archives)
In 1817 the State of New York began a revolutionary project to connect its eastern ports and the Hudson River with Lake Erie and Buffalo in the west. The Erie Canal heightened fears among many Pennsylvanian merchants that New York would become even more prosperous and appealing and would threaten commerce in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania responded by building the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, which connected Philadelphia in the east to Pittsburgh in the west. This enormous undertaking was completed in several sections, requiring a substantial investment of capital from the Commonwealth. By 1834, after decades of planning and construction, the canal was in use transporting millions of pounds of goods along its scenic routes throughout the state.

Using waterways as a mode of transportation was not a new idea. In fact, William Penn had proposed using them when he had the Philadelphia region surveyed for settlement, choosing the city's location at least in part to be near the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Prior to the Main Line Canal smaller companies had built an increasingly intricate system of canals throughout the state, but most only connected relatively local waterways. The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal connected the east to the west, allowing goods from the ports in Philadelphia to be easily distributed throughout the State and to travel as far as Pittsburgh.

Canal_at_Narrowsville_RG-6
Canal at Narrowsville, PA
(RG-6, PA State Archives)
The Commonwealth's rugged terrain and rivers presented obstacles throughout the construction of the Main Line Canal. A complex array of locks and gates were constructed, similar to those already in use in England and elsewhere in the United States. A standard lift-lock had gates on either end. When a boat approached needing to move from lower to higher elevation (for example), a sluice gate opened to drain water from the lock chamber to the level of the water on which the boat was floating. The lock's lower gate opened to allow the boat to enter and then closed behind it. The water level in the lock chamber was then raised to the level of the water in front of the upper gate and the gate would open, freeing the boat at the higher level. [Editor's note: the website for the Schuylkill Canal Association has an animation of how locks work.] Creeks and other waterways that presented obstacles were bridged via aqueducts and culverts. To maintain an adequate supply of water to the canals numerous dams were constructed on the rivers feeding into the canal. In areas where there were great distances between two lift-locks, stop-locks were constructed to halt the flow of water so that sections could be drained for maintenance to keep the canals operable.

Canal_lock_Schuylkill_Junction_RG-6
Lock at Schuylkill Junction
(RG-6, PA State Archives)
Millions of dollars were spent on maintenance for the lift-locks, aqueducts, feeders, dams, bridges, and workmen’s wages. By the end of the 19th century canals had been mostly displaced by the railroads. Many of them were bought out by railroad companies and fell into disrepair. As the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded, the cost of maintaining both the rail lines and the canals became far too great. The beginning of the end for the canals came with the widespread use and increased manufacturing of steam locomotives. Increasingly efficient locomotives took much of the trade from the canals; by 1890 all but approximately 144 miles of Pennsylvania’s canals were abandoned and left to succumb to the forces of nature.

Overflow_Delaware_Canal_RG-6
Overflow, Delaware Canal
(RG-6, PA State Archives)
The Pennsylvania Canal was once one of the most impressive and intricate networks of its kind in the United States; in its heyday it was integral to both intrastate and interstate commerce. With 19th-century pick axes and tools Pennsylvanians labored tirelessly to complete approximately 1,250 miles of canal waterways. Today very few remnants of the canals remain; however if you are willing to trek off the beaten path and know where to look the remains of old gates and lock houses can still be found. As you drive along the many highways and back roads throughout the Commonwealth be sure to keep an eye out for historical markers indicating the locations where the iconic Pennsylvania Canal once stood.

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