Schuylkill Canal

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Schuylkill canal.jpg

Canals, Locks and Navigations[edit | edit source]

The actual name for what is commonly called the Schuylkill Canal is "Schuylkill Navigation". It is located in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States and is an old commercial waterway that provided water power and transportation to the area in the early 1800s. Found in and alongside the Schuylkill River it fostered commercial development of the natural resources in Pennsylvania by offering a reliable form of transport of bulk materials to markets. Rather than being one canal, it was a system of interconnected slack water pools and canals that used "Locks" to allow movement of large boats moving from the elevation of one water body to the elevation of another by adjusting the water volume of the locks. Large boats would enter the Locks (monitored by a Locks Tender), gates would close and water volume would be adjusted downward or upward to accommodate the water level needed to continue the trip through the canal.

Early History[edit | edit source]

Chartered in 1815, the Schuylkill Navigation Company was designed to construct navigational improvements on the Schuylkill River. By 1827, 108 miles (174 km) of the waterway was completed. It connected Port Carbon and the Coal Region of Pottsville to Philadelphia. Over the course of 46 miles of slack water pools and 62 miles of canals 92 lift locks were installed. These 92 locks made it possible to lift the water level a total of 588 feet over the 108 miles. By providing a means of transportation of large cargoes the Schuylkill Navigation transformed the small cities of Pottsville, Reading, and Norristown into manufacturing centers. Other canals and waterworks connected with the Schuylkill at key intersections and enlarged the markets to include Middletown, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and reaching as far as the New York Harbor. In a short period of time the Schuylkill assumed a monopoly position in the business of transporting anthracite coal from Schuylkill County coal mines to Philadelphia. By 1841 almost 738,000 tons of cargo was being transported each year over the canal and its intricate system of locks.

Competition Within the Transportation Market[edit | edit source]

Black train.jpg

The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was finished in 1841 and immediately began competing with the canal in the transportation of coal from the inner reaches of Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. As soon as 1845 the railroad was hauling three times more anthracite coal to Philadelphia than the Schuylkill Canal. The competition between the two companies forced the Schuylkill to expand. The canals began enlargement operations in 1845 and by 1847 the canals and locks were large enough to allow boats carrying 230 tons of coal to pass through the waterways and locks. In 1859 the canal transported over 1,700,000 tons of coal, but the railroad carried 2,500,000 tons and was able to overtake the commercial transport business in the area.

Decline of the Schuylkill System[edit | edit source]

Lock 60.jpg

By 1860, finding themselves unable to compete with the railroads, the canal system began its decline. A flood damaged the canal system in 1869 and in 1870 the Schuylkill Navigation Company leased the canals and locks to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The decline continued and by 1890 only 145,000 tons of cargo passed through the locks. During the years between 1947 and 1979 most of the canals were filled in an effort to remove coal silt from the river.

The Schuylkill Canal Today[edit | edit source]

The Schuylkill Canal Association, a volunteer organization, has restored Lock 60 and it is now operational. The lock tender's houses have also been restored and stand as part of the historical district of the old system. The area has been renamed the "Oakes Reach" after Thomas Oakes, who was the chief engineer of the original Schuylkill Navigation. The Oakes Reach canal, lock tenders' houses, locks, Black Rock Dam and the connecting slack water pool go as far as Pennsylvania Route 133 and together form the "Schuylkill Navigation Canal, Oakes Reach Section" historic district.

References[edit | edit source]