The Canal Zone
If there’s one category in which Pennsylvania has been, arguably, the leader throughout U.S. history, its transportation. The Keystone State has been at the forefront of American infrastructure since the beginning of the 19th Century but not without some problematic deviations along the way. The canal system was one of them, and Harrisburg was a major player in the publicly and privately financed system that, in hindsight, falls into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” category.
The Pennsylvania Canal System had its origins in 1797 when the Conewago Canal was created to carry riverboats around the Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River near York Haven. The Pennsylvania Canal System was prompted largely by the construction of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, with the perception by Pennsylvania that New York would have a competitive advantage in moving people and materials through the interior of the United States. During the early part of the 19th Century, Pennsylvania saw the construction of hundreds of miles of canals throughout the state with their total length eventually reaching 1,243 miles.
Central Pennsylvania figured largely in the system with the Lehigh Canal that improved transportation on the lower Lehigh River from Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe) to Easton at the confluence of the Delaware River via Allentown and Bethlehem primarily for the transport of anthracite coal to eastern manufacturing centers. Two other canals, the Schuylkill Canal from Philadelphia to Port Carbon and the Union Canal from Reading to Middletown, were completed in this same period.
At this point, a package of legislation in Pennsylvania called the Main Line of Public Works was passed to support the vision of a comprehensive transportation system that included an assemblage of canal and road projects to achieve it. By 1834, the Main Line of Public Works had created an arrangement of interlocking canals, railways and inclined planes that hauled passengers and freight up to 391 miles between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. By 1840, work had been completed on the Main Line and on other routes, officially designated as divisions. The Main Line consisted of the Eastern Division, the Juniata Division, the Western Division, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. North-south divisions operated along the Delaware River (east), the Susquehanna River (midstate) and the Beaver River (west).
Perhaps the term “railways” as a portion of the canal system legislation was a portent of the eventual demise of canals as a viable transportation network. By 1850, steam-engine technology had progressed to the point that locomotives, originally designed to carry loads over short distances, now had sufficient power to move large amounts of freight, like grain and coal, over longer distances. In addition, railroads ran on tracks that ran on the surface, covering terrain not blessed with waterways. In short, it was easier to build track where it was needed rather than digging an enormous ditch that required water and a series of locks to elevate it so that barges could travel upon it. Another factor in the rise of railways was the growing population and manufacturing centers in the state that required increasing amounts of coal for fuel and building materials for construction. Anthracite coal, rather than the dirtier bituminous variety, was the preferred fuel for both home heating and industry, and that’s where Pennsylvania stood as the vanguard of technology at the time.
Coal is found numerous places around the world, but the coal from a 500-square-mile region of northeastern Pennsylvania is exceptional. Thanks to the Paleozoic Era 300 million years ago, a coal with greater purity, hardness and with higher carbon content – anthracite – was born, and over 95 percent of the Western Hemisphere’s supply comes from the coal region of Pennsylvania. The demand for Pennsylvania coal spurred the transportation revolution and effectively doomed the canal system in favor of the faster, more efficient railroads. Given that eastern cities in the United States, by the middle of the 19th Century, had already consumed much of the eastern forests for heating fuel, it was obvious that the railroads would become king in the transportation contest and that canals would soldier on for a period of time but were doomed to become unnecessary in the growth of Pennsylvania and the nation.
However, during the heyday of canals, Harrisburg began its rise as one of the major transportation hubs for the eastern United States, beginning in 1827, with the building of Lock #6 of the Pennsylvania Canal at the end of Walnut Street. Of this event, Richard H. Steinmetz, Sr. and Robert D. Hofsommer wrote in their landmark work, This Was Harrisburg, Stackpole Books, 1976, p.82: “It was in Harrisburg that the first lock of the Eastern Division was constructed. On July 4, 1826, Governor Shulze initiated the work by turning the first spadeful of earth for Lock No. 6 (the Penn Lock) at the foot of Walnut Street. On March 14 the following year ‘a great concourse of people’ including members of the legislature, the town burgess, and the Council attended the laying of the cornerstone in Masonic form by the governor. It was a historic event for Harrisburg, and a historic date; it marked the beginning of Harrisburg’s rise as a transportation center, since the canal was the immediate forerunner of the Pennsylvania Railroad system.”
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the canal system in Pennsylvania had been completely supplanted by the railroads and began to fall into disrepair and memory.
Fortunately, a number of historians and aficionados of the canal era have kept the memory alive through their organization, the Pennsylvania Canal Society (pacanalsociety.org), and provide some amazing footage of an early example of filmmaking depicting a mule team on a canal towpath towing a barge up a canal. For those seeking evidence of the canal system, opportunities abound in Central Pennsylvania. Vestiges of the canals exist along the west branch of the Susquehanna River between Northumberland and Lock Haven, and stone canal walls still stand near Muncy, with other canal and lock remnants preserved near Lock Haven, and Lock No. 32 has been preserved in Jersey Shore.
For Harrisburg residents seeking evidence of the canal system, one need not travel any further than Wildwood Park or Fort Hunter just north of the city. The Wildwood Park website (wildwoodlake.org) provides description and details of the Pennsylvania Canal remainders, including a towpath trail excellent for hiking and observing nature. An interesting quote by the late Floyd Demmy on the website reflects upon the origins of Wildwood Park: “On occasion we would tramp through the Glen-Gery Brick Yard on the southeast corner of Elmerton Avenue and Cameron Street to get to Wildwood. On other occasions, we marched across the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near Division Street using the high pedestrian bridge, then cross the Canal Road to the zoo or go up past the zoo to where Wildwood Lake began. The Canal Road was named for the former Pennsylvania Canal that ran from Northern Dauphin County through Harrisburg to Steelton. Generally, the canal was in sight of Cameron Street.”
The vestiges of the canal and the towpath at Fort Hunter (forthunter.org) are easily accessible and certainly worth the short drive from nearly any point in Central Pennsylvania.
Parking is abundant, and it’s a short walk to the towpath. Cross the Everhart Bridge (a remarkably preserved covered bridge, originally located in Dauphin and moved to Fort Hunter in 1941) to easily reach the towpath. The remains of the canal are clearly evident, and a series of interpretive signs provide history and information.
Visiting this Canal Zone doesn’t require a passport and can be accomplished in a car. Why wait?