Canal

March 18th, 2015

Transportation routes built for commerce developed slowly in Pennsylvania, and it was not until after the American Revolution that some thought was given to open the upper river regions to the potential of transportation via canals.  Routes to the interior promised opportunity, but bad roads limited development.  Remote farming settlements far from navigable waters remained isolated and developed small self-sufficient economies.  Many of the settlers struggled to take advantage of local natural resources such as lime, iron, timber and slate, but lack of transportation restricted their use.  Such barriers did not stop shipping completely.  Massive log rafts of felled timber and flat-bottomed Durham boats were used throughout the commonwealth including the Susquehanna River.  Durham boats were laboriously poled back upstream, although their limited size and the intensive labor required made this form of transportation expensive.  In general these boats were 40 feet (12 m) to 60 feet (18 m) long and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide. The bottoms were planked and flat, without a keel, but possibly with a larger “keel-plank” in the center.  The sides were vertical and parallel, tapering to a sharp wedge shape at either end.  They were decked at both ends and had cleated walking boards along either side. They would have been fitted with a long “sweep” or steering oar and one mast which usually held two square sails.

A Canal Commission was appointed in 1789 by an Act of Assembly to determine if the Delaware, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers could be made navigable.  The belief was that a system of inland waterways would create a more efficient and profitable means of transporting goods throughout the commonwealth.  During the early 1800s, there was some skepticism to such a scheme until Clinton’s “Big Ditch” proved to be a great success.  What often took months to transport over roads took much less time without the weather having as great an effect.  In addition, the canal allowed ten times the amount of produce to be transported than that of land travel.  With the opening of the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825 running across the state of New York approximately 363 miles, the leaders of Pennsylvania decided it was time to invest in this new mode of transportation.

On February 26, 1826, the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the creation of a canal system within the borders of Pennsylvania.  This navigation system of canal and slack water would consist of a series of dams and locks of unprecedented size overcoming natural inclines of elevation changes along the Susquehanna River thus allowing boats to navigate up and down the water ways with greater ease and efficiency.  For instance, a boat passing by Watsontown would enter Lock 18.  A gate would be closed and water would fill or drain the lock in order to raise or lower the boat 5’2”.  Teams of mules were used to pull the boats along the tow path led by a boy.  The West Branch of the Susquehanna Division of the Pennsylvania Canal would connect Northumberland with Lock Port across the river from Lock Haven, a distance of approximately 73 miles with 19 lift locks.  Construction on the West Branch Canal began in 1828 and was largely hand-dug by local farmers and Irish immigrants using picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows.  The canal was built with a width of 28 feet at the bottom and 40 feet at the top and a depth of 8 to 10 feet.  Lock 18 located at Watsontown was 14.6 miles north of the Northumberland Canal Basin with the lift being 5’2”.  This Lock along with the Lock House were located just south of Watsontown near Port May across from the present Watsontown Brick Company between Route 405 and the river.  The West Branch Canal was completed from Northumberland to Muncy on October 2, 1830.  Robert H. McCormick (1822-1894) wrote of this accomplishment in his 1877 history of Watsontown as follows: “The next improvement was the West Branch Canal, which was completed in 1830, and was a great convenience and a much safer mode of conveying the products of the country to Market than the old river arks and flat bottom boats.”

The West Branch Canal formally opened on July 4, 1834 which at that time only went to the mouth of the Loyalsock Creek though it had been in operation for a number of years.  The dedication took place after the majority of the canal had been completed.  The first packet boat to navigate the canal on that auspicious occasion was the “James Madison.”  A group of local dignitaries, including former Governor J. Andrew Shulze (1775-1852), who resided in Montoursville, rode the boat from Northumberland to the end of the canal.  William F. Packer estimated the cost of the 73 mile canal that extended from Northumberland to Williamsport to Lock Haven and finally to Bellefonte at $1,158,580.84

The Canal Commissioners created a set of Canal Regulations to establish a uniform code of conduct for the Pennsylvania Canals.  Each lock would have a lock tender who resided at the Lock House and whose main responsibility was to open and close the gates allowing for canal boats do rise or descend as needed in the Lock.  The lock tenders were on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the boating season and were summoned to the lock by the sound of a boatman blowing through a conch shell.  Often times these lock tenders would also conduct stores from their premises for passengers and crew on the canal boats.  The canal boats were under the command of a captain who was responsible for keeping track of cargo and/or passengers as well as paying the necessary tolls for passage.  In addition, the captain would often act as steersman at the tiller to guide the boat.  Along with the captain, there was a bowman who would handle the lines that connected the canal boat to the team of mules, oxen or horses that would pull the canal boat through the canal.  There was also the mule tender, usually a boy, who would drive the mules on the tow path along the canal.  In addition to driving the mule team, the mule tender would also act as forager for the crew.  As William Shank put it, “If a fat hen from some farmer’s hen house wandered too close to the tow path it was only natural that it should wind up in the diner pot on board.  Ripe fruit near the tow path seldom was harvested by the owner.  The top rails on fences adjoining the tow path also had a mysterious way of disappearing on cold nights, when the canal boat stove was low in fuel.”  The Canal Regulations limited the speed of the canal boats to 4 miles per hour since going any faster would create a backwash which undercut the earthen canal banks.  It was also according to these regulations that when two “floats” would meet on the canal the master of each would go to the right of the center to let the other pass.  And though the Canal Regulations gave the lock tender the final decision of which “float” could enter the lock first when two would arrive at the same time, many captains would race to the gates and often times the toughest crews would clear the locks first frequently getting into a heated brawl.

The canal boats fell into two categories, one for cargo and the other, known as packets, for passengers.  Packets generally moved at the maximum speed and normally used the speedier horse as the optimum towing animal.  Meals were provided on board along with sleeping accommodations for night travel.  These boats were usually lighter and could make better time than a cargo boat.  The cargo boats could travel 25 to 45 miles a day with the primary export being lumber, grain and whiskey while the primary import were manufactured goods.  Because of the weight of cargo, mules were the normal means of towing and would work for six hours at a time.  For company owned boats, mule barns were located along the way providing fresh mules thus allowing travel to continue uninterrupted.  Privately owned canal boats tended to have two cabins, one for the family and crew and another for the mules.  Canal boats could be 14 feet wide and 80 feet long and about 12 feet high with the capacity of carrying 75 tons (150,000 pounds) of cargo.

Tolls were charged for the use of the canal based upon the weight of the cargo and were collected at designated places along the canal, frequently the first lock beyond the closest boat weigh lock.  Lock gates were generally V-shaped, one pair at each end of the lock with the point of the V upstream.  These gates were manually opened and closed by means of “balance beams” or long arms on each gate, operated from the banks by the lock tender, often with assistance of the boat crew.  The lock gates could not be opened except when the pressure of the water was equalized on both sides.  This equalization was accomplished by means of small sluice gates in the lock gates themselves which could be slid up or turned by means of rods that projected above the balance beams.  Later, drop-type lock gates were substituted at the upper ends of some locks, which permitted more rapid passage of the boats.  These gates were hinged at the bottom of the lock and folded down into the lock bed on the upstream side permitting the boats to pass over them.  It took a boat going downstream about five minutes to get through a lock; upstream it took longer.  Normally, boats could be passed through the locks at eight minute intervals.

From the 1830s until the railroad was constructed in 1854, the West Branch Canal literally became the water highway for Watsontown.  Though the canal had a major influence on the communities north and south of Watsontown, especially that of Williamsport, it produced no marked effect on the growth or prosperity of Watsontown.  Eventually, the canal was superseded by the railroads in their ability to transport large amounts of cargo in shorter time over greater terrain.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sold the West Branch Canal to the Sunbury and Erie Railroad in 1858.  A division of the railroad known as the Pennsylvania Canal Company was established to operate the canal for freight which they continued to do until the great flood of 1889.  Due to this devastating flood, which greatly disabled the canal system, the West Branch was closed about 1891.

The lock at Watsontown was still usable following 1891, but the Commonwealth no longer kept up with repairs and it was only a matter of time before even the lock at Watsontown slipped into history.  One of the last mentions of the canal at Watsontown was in the April 8, 1898 edition of The Record and Star, “Water was let into the canal on Sunday last.  Capt. Jere Mottern (1835-1915) and Capt. W.F. Ungard (1853-1923) launched their boats on Monday morning and sailed for the North Branch coal regions.”

After the canal fell into disuse, it became the town’s dumping grounds.  Old debris and refuse was taken to an entrance at the western end of Fifth Street where townspeople would discard often large items.  In time the “dump” began filling the old canal bed as far north as Sixth or Seventh Street.  This created a pool of water the remaining way to Eighth Street and during the winters when the water would freeze, people would ice skate in this area as late as the 1970s.

In January 2010, the pavilion project was conceived by the Pennsylvania Canal Society as a memorial to Robert W. Keintz (1953-2009), a lifelong canal enthusiast.  It was also hoped to be a reminder to the general public of the canal days and the great influence the canal system had in Pennsylvania during the early 1800s.  The pavilion, designed by Ken Harmon, reflects the full scale of an actual 1851 company owned canal boat and was constructed though the efforts of the Pathways Committee of the Warrior Run Community Corporation. 

[The Record and Star, April 8, 1898; The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals, 150th Anniversary Edition by William H. Shank; Canal History by Carol Lee of the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission.]

Last Modified: 11.11.14

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