History of Canals in Westmoreland County, Pa.
From: History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania
By: John N. Boucher
Published By: The Lewis Publishing Company
New York, Chicago, 1906


At the close of the Revolution our people, as we have seen, began to agitate the transportation question. The first result was the formation of state and county roads, which served their day and generation. Next after these came the canals. Water always had been and perhaps always will be, the cheapest medium of transportation when practicable, and where speed was not a requisite. Wind has been the great power which carried the wealth of the East to the old time centers of industry in western Asia and eastern Europe. But this was out of the question as a motive power for internal navigation.

In honoring Robert Fulton as the father of steam navigation, it is generally forgotten that he was an apostle of canal building prior to the invention so inseparably connected with his name and fame. He was a native of Lancaster county, and spent several years in England studying the question of internal navigation. There he published a book illustrated with drawings of canal boats, aqueducts, and locks for lifting and lowering boats. On his return to his native land he urged canal building as a method of internal navigation for the people of the United States. In a letter which he wrote to Governor Penn, of Pennsylvania, he used these words: "The time will come when canals shall pass through every vale, wind round every hill, and bind the whole country in one band of social intercourse." This became an oft quoted sentence by the early advocates of canal building as a means of internal improvement.

It must not be supposed that canals were then new in the world's history. They had been used in Egypt and China before the days of Julius Caesar, and had for centuries been in use throughout Europe. But most of the places of canals in Europe, although of ingenious conception, were not practicable in America, and none were so valuable to us as those outlined and advocated by Robert Fulton.

In 1791 a "Society for Promoting the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation" was formed in our state, and it gave a great deal of attention to the surveying of several routes across Pennsylvania by which the Delaware river might be connected with the northern lakes. At that time the Mississippi was closed to American commerce, for the Spaniards owned Louisiana, and they were hostile to the United States. Nor was the situation improved by its sale to France. But when Thomas Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon Bonaparte for the United States in 1803, thenceforth the great object sought by our people was a water connection between the Delaware and the Ohio river. The great utility of such an achievement is patent to any one who contemplates our surroundings at that time. The "Louisiana purchase" meant more to western Pennsylvania then than we are likely to imagine now. It gave an isolate section, rich in products, or, rather, rich in the possibility of its products, its first real outlet to the seaboard and to the commerce of the world. So the eastern sections of Pennsylvania, far in advance of us in wealth, became greatly interested in a canal across our state, so that our products might not reach them by sailing first westward on the Ohio river.

The canal from Buffalo to New York, was built largely through the efforts of DeWitt Clinton, and was opened up on November 4, 1823. The result was that the cost of carrying freight over the route was reduced from $100 per ton to $100 per ton. This awakened our people to the importance of a similar waterway across Pennsylvania. The legislature took up the question at once, and had surveys made of all the principal rivers in order that the most practicable route might be selected. A canal across the Alleghenies was impossible, but the gap was to be supplied by good roads across the mountains. Much time was spent in trying to locate the canals on either side, so that the roads crossing the mountains would be as short as possible. In 1824 the assembly authorized the appointment of three canal commissioners to explore a route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and on April 11, 1825, they were appointed. The Union Canal had already been built connecting the Schuylkill river with the Susquehanna, its western terminus being near Harrisburg. The commissioners appointed by the Governor reported the route by the Juniata and the Conemaugh to be the most practicable. Accordingly, in 1826, the legislature provided for the construction of the Pennsylvania Canal. It was to begin at the western terminus of the Union Canal, and extend to the mouth of the Juniata river. West of the mountains it was to extend from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Kiskiminetas river, the object undoubtedly being that both the Juniata and the Kiskiminetas rivers should be made navigable by slackwater. The legislature appropriated three hundred thousand dollars, so that work could be begun on it at once. This was done, and it was pushed so rapidly that in 1827 the water was turned into the levels at Leechburg. Later the slack water projects for the navigation of the Juniata and Kiskiminetas rivers were abandoned, and the canal, when completed, reached from the Susquehanna to Holidasburg, at the base of the eastern slope of the Alleghenies and from Johnstown at the foot of the western slope to Pittsburgh. These canals were managed by a board of canal commissioners consisting of three men appointed by the Governor. The appointment was then one of the most important in the state and almost invariably our leading business men were selected.

No improvement up to that time in the history of Pennsylvania was attended with so much benefit to the west as the completion of this canal. Towns and villages sprang up all along its route, and the population was everywhere increased. Blast furnaces were started at once. Mountains which had hitherto been regarded as worthless at once became of great value because of the deposits of iron ore which they contained. The furnaces afforded a market for the timber, for they were operated entirely by charcoal. The canal came west from Johnstown on the north bank of the Conemaugh, passing near the towns of Nineveh, New Florence, Lockport, Bolivar, Blairsville, Bairdstown Livermore, Salzburg, Leechburg and thence to Freepert. It crossed the Conemaugh river on a beautifully arched stone aqueduct at Lockport. It will thus be seen that it passed along and through the northern part of our county for a distance of about sixty miles, and that, though part of this distance it was not within our limits, it was at all points within our reach and benefitted our county correspondingly. The first canal boat on our part of the canat was built at Apollo, and was called the "General Abner Leacock." It was intended as a freight and passenger boat, and had berths, etc., like the steamboats of a later period.

In 1834 the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad was completed, and also the Portage railroad over the mountains, which latter connected the two canals. So a canal boat was brought from the east over the canal and over the mountains on trucks to Johnstown, where it was put on the canal and finally reached Pittsburgh. The newspapers of the day hailed this as one of the great feats. of modern times. Capitalists invested money in schemes all along the canal route, and business men who were not interested in canal lines, its boats, or its adjuncts such as turnpikes, stages, etc., were not regarded as wealthy nor enterprising nor on the true highway to fortune.

A canal may be briefly described as an artificial waterway over which boats were drawn by mules. Beside the canal was a narrow path called a towpath, on which the mules were driven. They were hitched tandem to a long rope which was fastened to the front part of the boat. By means of the rudder the boat was kept in the middle of the canal and could be landed at the side opposite the towpath when necessary. Each section of the canal was necessarily level from one end to the other. The next section of the canal being either lower or higher than the first, the boat was lowered or raised, as might be necessary, by means of a lock, which was practically the same in construction as the locks now used on rivers which are made navigable by slack water dams. The average canal was about thirty feet wide, and held about four feet of water. Canal boats varied in length and somewhat in width: they were generally about twelve feet wide and from twenty five to fifty feet long. Two boats could therefore pass each other, for they were never quite half as wide as the canal. They sometimes passed through hills by tunnels. and likewise over small valleys or rivers by embankments or bridges, the latter being called aqueducts. The canal was fed at the beginning of its highest section, usually by a dam across a stream or river, and the water moved so slowly in the canal, passing from one basin to another, that it often became stagnant. There being no current, the boat could be landed at any time, and the draft was about the same going either way. It was a very cheap system of transportation. Two mules could easily draw fifty tons, and average about two miles per hour. The mules were driven on a rapid walk unless the boat was unusually heavily laden. While this speed was sufficient for iron, coal, lumber, or almost any species of freight, it was too slow for passenger traffic, and the canals therefore were never much opposition to the stage lines passing over our turnpikes. They were, however, of great advantage in the transportation of freight. They are now nearly all abandoned, and one sees only the remnants of a lock or basin that is slowly filling up with sediment, so thoroughly have they been supplanted by railroads.

From the Blairsville Record of July 23, 1829, we copy the following:

"We have delayed the publication of our paper till this morning so that we might announce the arrival of the first packet boats, the Pioneer and the Pennsylvania, at the port of Blairsville. They arrived last evening. They are owned bye Mr. David Leech, whose enterprise and perseverance entitle him to much credit. A large party of citizens and strangers met the boats a few miles below this town and were received on board with that politeness and attention for which Mr. Leech is proverbial.

"The Pioneer passed the first lift lock below this place in the short space of three minuses. The boats are handsomely fitted up and well calculated to give comfort to passengers. They were welcomed at our wharves by the presence of many of our citizens of both sexes. They departed at nine o'clock this morning for Pittsburgh."

The reader will understand that these were the first real passenger boats en the canal; freight boats had been in use two years before this.

One of the most interesting descriptions of traveling by canal in western Pennsylvania is given by Charles Dickens in his "American Notes," written during his first visit to America in 1842:

"The canal extends to the foot of the mountain, and there of course it stops, the passengers being conveyed across it by land carriages, and taken on afterwards by another canal boat, the counterpart of the first, which awaits them on the other side. There are two canal lines of passage-boats; one is called the Express, and the other, a cheaper one, the Pioneer. The Pioneer gets first to the mountain, and waits for the Express people to come up, both sets of passengers being conveyed across it at the same time. We were the Express company, but when we had crossed the mountain and had come to the second boat, the proprietors took it in their heads to draft all the Pioneers into it likewise, so that we were five and forty at least, and the accession of passengers was not at all of that kind which improved the prospect of sleeping at night. One of two remarkable circumstances is indisputably a fact with reference to that class of society who travels in these boats, either they carry their restlessness to such a pitch that they never sleep at all, or they expectorate in dreams, which would be a remarkable mingling of the real and the ideal. Al night long and every night on this canal, there was a perfect storm and tempest of spitting. Between five and six o'clock in the morning we got up, and some of its went on deck to give them an opportunity of taking the shelves down, while others, the morning being very cold, crowded round the rusty stove, cherishing the newly kindled fire, and filling the grate with these volunteer contributions of which they had been so liberal at night. The washing accommodations were primitive. There was a tin ladle chained to the deck, with which every gentleman who thought it necessary to cleanse himself, many were superior of thir weakness, fished the dirty water out of the canal ands poured it into a tin basin secured in like manner. There was also a jack-towel. Hanging up before a little looking glass in the bar, in the immediate vicinity of the bread and cheese and biscuits were a public comb and a hair brush. And yet, despite these oddities, and, even they had, for me at least, a humor of their own there was much in this mode of traveling which I heartily enjoyed at the time, and look back upon it now with great pleasure. Even the running up bare-necked at five o'clock in the morning from the tainted cabin to the dirty deck, scooping up the icy water, plunging one's head into it and drawing. it out all fresh and glowing with the cold, was a good thing. The fast, brisk walk upon the towing path between that time and breakfast, when every vein and artery seemed to tingle with health, the exquisite beauty of the opening day, when light comes gleaming off from every thing; the lazy motion of the boat when one lay idly on the deck, looking through, rather than at the deep blue sky; the gliding on at night so noiselessly, past frowning hills, sullen with dark trees, and sometimes angry in one red, Miming spot high up where unseen men lay crouching round a fire; the shining out of the bright stars, undisturbed by noise of wheels or steam or any other sound than the rippling of the water as the boat went on, all these were pure delights."

Charles Dickens arrived in Pittsburgh at 9:3o p. m. on March 28, as is announced in the Morning Chronicle of March 29, so this trip was taken on the 28th. He came from Johnstown on David Leech's packet called the "Express." He went from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.

The primitive mode of navigation on the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers was the simple Indian canoe propelled by either one or two oars. The canoe was constructed by the unskilled hand and was the pride of the untutored red man, for upon it he glided up and down our limpid waters. Generally they were made of a solid section of a tree hewn into proper shape by a rude tomahawk. Sometimes the natural bark was nicely ornamented. The successor. to the canoe was the skiff. The original freight crafts were constructed in the form of rafts of logs, but on the coming of the saw mills, the flat boat and broad horn boats took their place, serving well the purpose for which intended. In the early part of the nineteenth century they were superceded by the keelboat, and they in time gave way to the steamboat. The first steamboat built in the Monongahela Valley was at West Brownsville, but it is not now known by whom built. Its name was the "Enterprise," and for many years it plied up and down the Monongahela river.

After several attempts to have the general government permanently improve the navigation of the Monongahela river without any practical success, the Monongahela Navigation Company was authorized by an Act of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, March 31, 1836. The only improved condition of navigation heretofore had been the construction of chutes and wing walls at the different points. The improvements proposed by this company was a series of locks and dams, and lock Nos. 1 and 2, beginning at Pittsburgh, were built in 1841. Nos. 3 and 4 were completed for use to Brownsville November 13, 1841. Other locks and dams were completed at various dates, until faunally the government aided in improving the stream. Below Morgantown, West Virginia, navigation is easy and complete. The slackwater is in perfect working order so that steamboats can run from Pittsburgh to Morgantown all seasons of the year except when the river is frozen over. November 8, 1889, the locks and darns were completed to Morgantown, and the steamboat "James G. Blaine" passed up from Pittsburgh to that place, being the first to make the trip.

Prior toe the completion of slackwater to Brownsville there were no regular packets on the river. The Liberty, Exchange, Oella, Massachusetts, Export, and that class of boats, did duty as carriers of freight and passengers whenever the depth of the water would admit of it, but navigation depended entirely on high water.

The Pittsburgh & Brownsville Packet Company was organized 1844. by Adam Jacobs, G. W. Cass. J. K. Moorehead, J. L. Dawson, I. C. Woodward and others. The Consul was the first boat built for this company. She was commanded by Captain Samuel Clarke. Soon after this the Louis McLane was put on the line under command of Captain Adam Jacobs. In 1851 the Red Stone was placed on the line with I. C. Woodward as commander. After a short service she was sold, and a few months later exploded her boilers near Cincinnati, Ohio, killing the engineer and several others. In 1852 the Jefferson and Luzerne were put in service, and in 1856 the Telegraph, Captain I. C. Woodward 1859, the Gallatin, Captain Clarke; the Dunbar, Captain Bennett; 186o, the Franklin, Captain Bennett; 1864, the Fayette, Captain S. C. Spears; 1866, the E. Bennett, Captain M. A. Cox in command.

In 1868 the People's Line consolidated with the old line and was known thereafter as the Pittsburgh, Brownsville & Geneva Packet Company. The Geneva was built in 1871 by this company and was in trade fourteen years. The stern wheel boat John Snowden came to service in 1876, Captain Peter Donaldson in charge, and later was turned into an excursion boat by Captain L. N. Clarke of Pittsburgh. The Bennett and Chieftain were lost in a destructive ice break up in 1882. The Adam Jacobs made her maiden trip September 15, 1883, Captain M. A. Cox in command. This was the first boat to use electric light, which has since been added to nearly all the larger packet boats.

Before the completion of the Pennsylvania railroad to Pittsburgh the Monongahela was on the great route between the west and east. This packet company was a very important link in the route, and the number of passengers and the freight carried by the boats prior to 1852 would astonish the modern enthusiast. Both freight and passengers came up the Ohio and then up the Monongahela. The turnpike from Robbstown, (now West Newtown). to Mt. Pleasant. Somerset, etc., was built to intercept this river trade. The slack water navigation of these rivers was therefore an important factor in our early Westmoreland industries, and even yet affords a cheap method of transportation for thousands of tons annually of our southwestern products.

Return to [ PA History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ]

All pages copyright 2003-2012. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy