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The Schuylkill Canal

Manyunk Reach of the Schuylkill Canal

Photo: Manyunk Reach of the Schuylkill Canal, photo by wikipedia username: J. Clear, own work, 2009, [cc-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed July, 2021.

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From early Colonial times up to the Canal Era, the Schuylkill River was used as a highway of commerce only during periods of high water. Craft such as arks, flatboats, and rafts transported the lumber and other products down river to Philadelphia from the upper counties. After reaching their destination, these crude conveyances were broken up, as it was not feasible to try propelling them back upstream. Early river transportation was therefore slow and costly, but there were few good roads then, and even the better highways were almost impassable during the months when river transportation was at its best. The need for better transportation facilities had been felt for years throughout the Schuylkill River country, but it was not until the hard-coal industry was born that important steps were taken in that direction.

The great period of canal building began after the War of 1812, when coal-mining operations sprang up in various parts of the anthracite regions. The coal industry, with ever widening markets, demanded better facilities of transportation than those provided by makeshift roads and the seasonal flow of rivers. In 1815, therefore, a group of enterprising men formed the Schuylkill Navigation Company (incorporated March 8), their purpose being to make the Schuylkill River navigable in all kinds of weather.

The great anthracite coal fields are in the northeastern section of the Commonwealth. They contain a workable area of 484 square miles extending over parts of Columbia,Lackawanna, Wayne, Dauphin, Susquehanna Luzerne, Carbon Northumberland, Columbia, and Schuylkill counties. The physical features of this section a century and a half ago were wild and forbidding. The territory was covered with dense forests. There were broad expanses of mountain and valleys; there were rocky glens and deep morasses. The occasional paths were fit only for the moccasined feet of Indians.

In the depths of the wilderness lay a black combustible stone that was destined to become the source of never ending controversy between mine operator and laborer. Coal was to mean strikes, cave-ins, gas explosions, and other calamities, but it was to become a keystone product of a great State.

The actual date of the discovery of hard coal is not recorded. It is said that Indians in the Wyoming Valley first encountered the "black stones" on Kingston Mountain early in the Colonial period and used them in their campfires. John Jenkins, a surveyor employed by the Susquehanna Company of Connecticut, reported finding two outcroppings of coal in the Wyoming Valley in 1763. The company forthwith voted "to reserve for use of the company all beds and mines of coal that may be within the towns then or ordered for settlement" in that territory.

In Pennsylvania records, the earliest known reference to anthracite is in the original draft of the survey of Sunbury Manor, opposite Wilkes-Barre, made by Charles Stewart in 1768. The following year Daniel and Obadiah Gore, Jr., brothers, first burned American anthracite in a Wyoming Valley blacksmith forge. Apparently the first recorded evidence of coal in Schuylkill County is Scull's 1770 map of that county. Necho Allen, a pioneer for whom Pottsville's leading hotel was named, is usually credited with discovering coal on Broad Mountain in 1790. But, as a matter of fact, many people knew of the presence of coal in the locality before that time. There was actually a coal mine within what is now Pottsville in 1784.

Anthracite's early start was a poor one, due to lack of understanding on the part of the public of how to burn coal. In due time, however, it gradually came into use as a fuel. The Pottsville Journal reported in a "chronology of anthracite coal," published in 1925, that, as early as 1822, nearly fifteen hundred tons of Schuylkill anthracite had been shipped down the Schuylkill Canal as far as it had been completed at that time.

The very earliest coal-mining plants were small holes sunk into the ground, the coal being hoisted by windlasses in a manner similar to present-day bootleg operations. Later, because of the accumulation of water in these holes, drifts or tunnels were driven into the hillsides and the coal was removed in wheelbarrows.

The first coal mined in the Schuylkill Region was, of course, by the local inhabitants, mostly Pennsylvania Germans who had previously been farmers and woodsmen. Increase in the production of coal caused a corresponding demand for labor. Immigrants to America were directed to the anthracite fields where work was plentiful. Among these were thousands of Englishmen, Welshmen, Germans, and Irishmen. Later came the Slavs of central and eastern Europe and the Italians from southern Europe. This influx of people soon gave the region the appearance of a boom area, similar in many respects to that of California during the Gold Rush of 1849 and Texas during later oil booms.

Articles of Incorporation for the Schuylkill Navigation Company provided for the construction of a lock navigation canal from the Lancaster Schuylkill bridge in Philadelphia to the mouth of Mill Creek in Schuylkill County, a distance of 108.23 miles, with one division extending from Philadelphia to Reading and the second from Reading to Mill Creek. There were to be about forty-six miles of slackwater created by dams, and about sixty-two miles of connecting canals. From Dam No. 1 at Port Carbon to tidewater at Philadelphia the lockage was to be 618 feet.

Actual work probably began late in 1816. As the legislature required that construction begin on both divisions simultaneously, a certain amount of difficulty arose. The divisions were so far removed from each other that proper superintendence could not be given to both at the same time. The work, nevertheless, was carried on.

In 1818 the section between Mount Carbon and Schuylkill Haven in Schuylkill County was well under way. A setback was encountered that year when freshets destroyed a large part of the work completed, but construction was resumed immediately. Toward the end of 1820, work was completed from the vicinity of the coal mines to Kern's Mill, about a mile north of Hamburg, with the exception of a tunnel, a short canal, and three locks. In 1821, when these were finished, coal and other products could be brought as far south as Hamburg. The northern division was complete then save for portions between Hamburg and Reading, and the southern division except for some incomplete sections below Reading. Through transportation from Mount Carbon to Philadelphia was not possible until late in 1824 or early in 1825, when all sections of the canal were completed. For a short time the boats were towed by men, and then in 1826 the towpath was made serviceable for horses and mules.

The task of navigating a boat through the canal was arduous, especially without an experienced navigator or without proper directions. The most hazardous part was below Reading, where rocks, points, and bars obstructed passages. Captains leaving Philadelphia were instructed as follows:

Tow the whole way to Manayunk. Let the horses go at a slow walk. Attend to the line. Keep a lookout for stumps and rocks. Keep out about ten or fifteen feet, according to the situation of the place, till you pass through the Little Canal, then keep out about thirty feet till you come to Young's Landing. Then keep the towpath channel at the falls about ten or twelve feet from the shore, and so continue till you have passed the rocks.

Although all canal boats on the Schuylkill followed the same general pattern of construction, there were three distinct types of men employed in the trade: company men, individual owners, and "river boatmen." The skilled boatmen would make a trip down river in spring and not return until autumn. During the summer months they found employment on the rivers about Philadelphia, in New York City, or on the Erie Canal. Company men worked on boats owned by the company. They were hired for specific tasks, but the captain of a company boat had the right to select his bowsman. The third class comprised those who owned their own boats and were, to a certain extent, competitors of the company. However, since they operated on the company's canal, the company exercised a degree of supervision over them.

A canal boat's crew had living quarters in the stern, just under the tiller, a small compartment with four bunks and a table and, in the winter, a stove. The bunks were narrow and scarcely long enough even for a man of average size. Often a box was used for a table. Two small windows at the stern admitted light and air. A ladder led up to the deck.

On a privately owned boat the captain and his bowsman always remained on the deck when the boat was moving, the former at the tiller and the latter at the bow. Besides taking personal charge of the steering, the captain would also blow the horn to signal the lock-tender upon approaching a lock. It was the bowsman's task to take care of the towline and protect the bow with rope fenders while passing through a lock. This required quick thinking and agility, as a man could easily be crushed to death between the boat's hull and the lock walls. Meanwhile, the driver aided the lock-tender with the wickets in opening and closing the locks.

Although the Schuylkill Canal was designed primarily for trade, pleasure cruises were run between Reading and Philadelphia from 1825 to 1832. Day-long trips at two and a half dollars per person were made three times a week, and the packets were well patronized. However, increase of commercial traffic on the canal made it necessary to discontinue passenger service. Twenty years later, in 1846, steam packets were introduced, but they did not operate long. From Port Carbon the Canal ran in a southerly course for about five miles to Schuylkill Haven, whence it meandered by a southeasterly course for about fourteen miles to Port Clinton, on the south side of the Blue Mountains. Then, resuming a southerly course, it passed the towns of Hamburg, Reading, Pottstown, Norristown, and Manayunk to the City of Philadelphia. One of its interesting features was a tunnel about a mile south of Landingville, on the northern division. This tunnel, the first of its kind in the United States, extended four hundred feet through a hill. It was regarded as an unusual curiosity, and people traveled long distances to see it. From time to time it was shortened by removing parts of the roof, and about 1857 it was made an open cut throughout its length.

The success of the canal went beyond expectations. The rapid growth of the coal trade made it necessary to build an extension from Mount Carbon to Port Carbon. In 1829 the total traffic was 134,524 tons, and in ten years the volume had increased to 686,716 tons. Dividends of nineteen per cent were being paid. The Union Canal, connecting the Schuylkill near Reading with the Susquehanna, helped greatly to increase traffic on the Schuylkill.

Organizers of the Schuylkill Canal Company, not anticipating such rapid growth of the coal trade, had built the canal for boats of eighteen to twenty-three tons capacity. These were seventy-five feet long, eight feet wide, and drew only three feet of water. In order to accommodate larger boats and speed up transportation, the depth of water in the canal was increased to four feet, and a double line of locks was constructed. These, placed side by side, permitted boats to pass in both directions at the same time. Then storage dams, from which water could be drawn in times of drought, had to be built. In 1834 the Lower Tumbling Run Reservoir, with a capacity of 180 million gallons, was completed. In 1836 the Upper Tumbling Run Dam, with a capacity of 225 million gallons, was constructed. Likewise, in the vicinity of Reading, a number of dams were built. The Tumbling Run Valley dams still exist; they are used as storage dams of the Silver Creek Water Company.

After the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was opened for business in 1842, the canal suffered severe losses. To meet this serious competition it was decided to enlarge and modernize the canal. This was started in 1845 and completed the following year, but by that time the company, for the first time, found itself in financial difficulties. Various reasons were given, among them the loss of business during the years of 1845-46 and the expense of building new and larger boats.

In this emergency Frederick Fraley was elected president. He remained in this post for twenty-three years, and under his able guidance the canal company continued. From 1855 to 1867 approximately fifteen million tons of coal, more than a million a year, were transported over the canal. The highest tonnage ever reached in one year was in 1859, when 1,699,101 tons of merchandise were transported; of this total, 1,372,109 tons consisted of coal.

There were now about fourteen hundred boats on the canal, each having a capacity of 180 tons. About one-half the amount of coal carried in 1859 was destined for New York and its vicinity. The New York-bound boats were towed by tugs from the mouth of the Schuylkill River up the Delaware River to Bordentown, New Jersey. Here they proceeded through the Delaware and Raritan Canal to New Brunswick, to enter the Raritan River and Bay. For purposes of towing, a number of boats were often lashed together so as to be handled more easily by tugs.

Despite enlargement of the Schuylkill Canal and modernization of its equipment in 1846, the canal company never afterward attained a satisfactory financial standing. The works were greatly damaged by several disastrous floods that caused long suspensions of traffic. A flood on July 19, 1850, necessitated the suspension of traffic until August 26; and on September 2, 1850, another flood, the greatest in the history of the Schuylkill Valley, caused much damage to the Lower Tumbling Run Reservoir, to canal banks, lock houses, and dams. Twenty-three dams in all were impaired to some extent, and the Schuylkill Valley was strewn with the wrecks of boats, lumber, furniture, and fragments of buildings. Following this flood, navigation was not resumed above Reading until the next spring.

In June 1862 a flood delayed navigation for three weeks, and in October 1869 another flood stopped traffic for a month. In 1870 the navigation company, embarrassed by financial reverses, leased the canal to the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company for a period of 999 years. The annual rental fee was $655,000, but methods were provided whereby this fee could be reduced from time to time.

Rapid expansion of the railroad soon doomed the canal, which had begun to decline as early as 1853, when Dam No. 1 at Port Carbon was abandoned. The reason for closing this was because a sufficient depth of water for boats could not be maintained because of coal dirt washing into the canal. In 1888 the section of canal between Schuylkill Haven and Port Clinton was closed, although shipping from Port Clinton to Philadelphia was continued until the end of 1915, with about thirty boats in service. Navigation was continued throughout the greater part of each boating season, and coal was shipped to Philadelphia and towns along the line. However, great difficulty was eventually encountered even here, because coal dirt from the mines was being washed farther and farther southward.

There was some barge traffic from Philadelphia to Manayunk as late as 1925. Motorboats, rowboats, and canoes also were in use in the vicinity of Reading and in the lower sections of the canal. Notwithstanding the fact that commercial traffic had all but ceased, the locks and dams for a time were kept in repair, the grass was kept cut on the towpath, and lock-tenders remained on duty.

Today only twenty-eight miles of the 108-mile Schuylkill Canal still exist, along with remnants of locks, dams, and rotting boats. The canal is still owned by the Schuylkill Navigation Company, a subsidiary of what is now the Reading Company.

But the history of the Schuylkill Canal is merely a chapter, though an important one, in the saga of Pennsylvania canals. As early as 1700, William Penn had recommended a plan to connect the Susquehanna, at what is now Middletown, with Philadelphia by uniting the waters of the Schuylkill River at Reading with those of Tulpehocken Creek and the Quittapahilla, which flowed into the Swatara ten miles westward, and finally into the Susquehanna at Middletown. The earliest survey for a canal, in 1762, was the result of Penn's foresight, but because of the lack of financial resources no construction work was undertaken at that time.

At the close of the War of 1812, many prominent citizens of the United States attempted to persuade the Federal Government to establish a general system of canals throughout the various states. Congress did not comply, but the appeals of these canal advocates stimulated action on the part of individuals and corporations, and this resulted in the building of artificial water routes in several states.

Pennsylvania was a pioneer in canal construction. And, in Pennsylvania, there were many canals proposed and actually constructed a decade before the legislature determined, by an act of February 25, 1826, to enter into actual building of an extended system of internal improvements and to continue the annual expenditure of large sums of money for canals until 1841. One of the canals projected and carried into successful operation before this act was the Schuylkill Canal.

The first canal in Pennsylvania was built around Conewago Falls, in York County. Only one and a quarter miles long, it was built to overcome an obstruction in the Susquehanna River; the dangerous rapids at the Falls had made passage of boats very difficult. The canal was opened in 1797, with Governor Thomas Mifflin, one of the projectors, in attendance.

Another famous Pennsylvania canal was the Union Canal, which connected the Susquehanna River at Middletown with the Schuylkill River near Reading, a distance of eighty-two miles. The Union Canal Company was formed in 1811, but continuous construction work was not begun until 1821. When the canal was opened in the spring of 1828, the first boat, Fair Trader, went through from Philadelphia to Middletown in about five days.

There were few boats in service during the first season, only seventeen in July, because the locks of the Union Canal were too small for the Schuylkill Canal's boats to pass through. Special ones had to be built; nearly two hundred of them were ready by the end of the year. Although the original intention was only to connect the Schuylkill with the Susquehanna, the discovery of anthracite coal in the Lorberry region induced Union Canal directors to build an extension to Pine Grove. This feeder canal was started in the fall of 1828 and opened in 1830.

As with the Schuylkill Canal, costly improvements, together with the advent of railroad competition, spelled doom for the Union Canal. The opening of the Lebanon Valley Railroad from Reading to Harrisburg in 1857 caused such financial distress to the already ailing canal company that when, on June 3.1862, a disastrous flood destroyed the Pine Grove Branch, it was completely abandoned. Boats continued to run between Middletown and Reading until 1884, when the canal, leaky, worn out, and profitless, had its property and franchise sold at a sheriff's sale in Philadelphia.

About the beginning of the 1820's, some far-sighted Pennsylvanians began to realize that more direct communication between Philadelphia and the West was necessary. The building of the Erie Canal, started in July 1817, was threatening Pennsylvania's security by its promise of extensive aid to New York City in her battle for the commerce of the great West. Baltimore, by way of the New National Road, was ninety miles nearer the Ohio River than Philadelphia. Moreover, the possibilities of constructing a canal, running up the Potomac and thence to the Ohio, were being widely discussed. Something had to be done, most Pennsylvanians believed, to enable the Keystone State to retain "her present station in the system of the Confederacy." In February 1825, after no little bickering caused principally by those interested in turnpikes and railroads, a canal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was decided to be "perfectly practicable."

Early in 1825 a board of five canal commissioners was instructed to prepare for "the establishment of communication between the eastern and western waters of the State and Lake Erie." To them was given power to employ engineers and draftsmen. Finally, a bill to provide for the construction of the waterway passed both houses of the State legislature in February 1828.

Ground for the Pennsylvania Canal was broken at Harrisburg on July 4, 1826. One of the original intentions was to employ the Schuylkill and Union canals as the eastern section of the great east-and-west waterway and to construct a new system for the western part. But the Union Canal was deemed too narrow and too small to provide adequate service for the great canal, and the State was forced to build its own route from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River. As a canal would be impracticable through the hilly terrain, a railroad 81.6 miles long was built from Columbia on the Susquehanna to Philadelphia. This railroad, using horse-drawn vehicles of the period, was authorized in 1828 and completed in 1834.

Meanwhile progress was being made on the western portion of the canal. The extreme western section, 104 miles of waterway from to Pittsburgh, was ready for use by 1830. Work on the Juniata Division, 172 miles of canal from Columbia almost to Hollidaysburg, at the foot of the Allegheny divide, was completed in 1832. Another railroad line, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, begun in 1831 and finished in 1834, was the connection between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. This railroad, about thirty-six and one-half miles long, crossed a mountain ridge approximately fourteen hundred feet above Hollidaysburg.

In conjunction with the main Pennsylvania Canal, the State constructed several branch lines. The digging of these was not long delayed after construction of the main line was under way. As soon as work on the principal canal began, the northern and northwestern portions of Pennsylvania started a clamor for canals. Philadelphia and the central counties argued that the main canal should be completed before incurring more expense, but advocates of secondary canals were powerful enough to frustrate the passage of any main canal appropriation bills that did not provide for branch lines also. Because such funds had already been expended on the Pennsylvania Canal, legislators were forced to vote for secondary canals in order to continue work on the main project.

The branch canals were surveyed in 1827, and excavation started in 1828. There were four principal ones. The Susquehanna Division left the main waterway at the junction of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers and continued up the Susquehanna to Northumberland, a distance of forty miles. At Northumberland the canal forked. One part followed the North Branch of the Susquehanna past Bloomsburg and Wilkes-Barre, heading for the New York line, where it was expected to connect with the Chemung and Chenango canals of the New York system and to tap the business of that state. The other fork followed the West Branch of the Susquehanna from Northumberland up past Lewisburg and Williamsport. The Delaware Division followed the Delaware River from Easton, at the mouth of the Lehigh River, down to tidewater at Bristol, a distance of sixty miles; this line was in reality the continuation of a canal built at great expense by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company along the Lehigh River. A small line named the Wiconisco Canal, twelve miles long, was built at a cost of one and a half million dollars.

By the year 1834 a total of 673 miles had been built. These had not been constructed economically, nor were they managed efficiently. As a result, the State was twenty-three million dollars in debt by 1834. Within seven years the debt had mounted to forty-two million and all work ceased. The proposed extension of the Pennsylvania Canal, to connect Pittsburgh with Lake Erie, was one of the last begun.

  1. Pennsylvania Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, Pennsylvania Cavalcade: American Guide Series 1942, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia