Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Schuylkill Canal, Scuylkill Navigation Company, 1816
Flat Rock Dam, Manayunk Canal, Locks Number 68 & 69, Philadelphia PA

Sara Jane Elk, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The notion of inland waterways to join markets and provide for the transportation of goods was proposed in America before the Revolutionary War. In fact, William Penn had suggested connecting the Schuylkill and the Susquehanna Rivers. 1 The engineering of rivers and the construction of canals to provide navigable routes, however, did not take place until the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal some sixty years later. Early efforts in Pennsylvania included a short canal around the Conowingo rapids of the Susquehanna River in 1790, the work that began in 1792 to join the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers but stopped for the lack of financial support, and the even more ambitious but never realized proposal the next year to construct a canal between the Delaware and the Susquehanna Rivers. In 1811, renewed interest culminated in the successful endeavor to join Reading with the Susquehanna by way of the Union Canal which followed along the Tulpehocken and Swatara Creeks. 2
 
The impetus to navigate the Schuylkill River came from Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, partners in a rolling mill and producers of nails and wire at the Falls of the Schuylkill (East Falls). They viewed the anthracite coal regions above Reading as an untapped resource, providing their efforts could create a viable market. Anthracite had no prior use as a fuel. The abundant American forests provided ample supplies of wood and charcoal, and bituminous coal, already in use in England, required transportation from its beds in western Pennsylvania or Virginia, thus limiting its widespread use.
3 After considerable experimentation with anthracite in their rolling mill, White and Hazard discovered, quite by accident, how to use it. 4 To open the coal region to the Philadelphia market, they looked to river transportation as a method to significantly reduce the cost of transporting the harden fuel down state. In 1815, White organized the Schuylkill Navigation Company and petitioned the State for the right to make the river navigable. By then he had also successfully developed cast iron grates for domestic stoves, further increasing the potential market for the coal. Ironically though, at the time of the incorporation of the company, White was denied election as a commissioner. 5 He abandoned his plans for the Schuylkill and with Hazard petitioned the State again, this time to tame the Lehigh River. Although construction finished on the Lehigh Canal after the work on the Schuylkill, they were first to deliver anthracite to the Philadelphia market. 6
 
Work began on the Schuylkill in 1816 with the first dam at the Falls of the Schuylkill, and shortly thereafter with the construction of the Flat Rock Dam, named for a well-known natural rock formation occurring in the river to the north of Manayunk. When finished in 1828, five months before the completion of the Erie Canal, the improvements to the river stretched 108 miles from the Fairmount Dam in Philadelphia to Port Carbon, just below Pottstown, and included a combination of methods to navigate rapids, falls and shallow water. The 62 miles of canals, 46 miles of slack water, or pools created by dams, and one tunnel 385 feet long, successfully navigated the fall of 588 feet along the river from the coal beds to Philadelphia.
7 The route contained a total of 120 locks; 29 of them were locks with no lift.
 
The Legislature required that work begin on either side of Reading and proceed on an equal basis. In 1821 the company opened the route from Phoenixville to Philadelphia, and by 1824 boats could travel the whole distance. Cheap coal began to arrive in the region to fuel steam engines across the city, stimulating the industrial revolution in Philadelphia.  Demand for the "black stones" brought as much as two million tons of coal out of Pennsylvania mines in 1845.
8
 
The construction of the Flat Rock Dam near Manayunk also involved the excavation of a two mile canal through a section of the river known as the “Dead Waters,” located near Flat Rock.
9 It was, according to Hagner:
 
“...a kind of natural canal extending from above Flat Rock bridge down to nearly where the main road cross the canal. In high freshets the water flowed into it from above, but generally it was a kind of pool or swamp into which ran the little streams from the hills...” 10
 
To navigate the fall in the river at Manayunk, locks number 68 & 69 were completed as a part of the canal. Number 69, near the present day Lock Street, although minus much of its mechanism, still retains enough of its metal fittings and its basic construction to reveal its double chambered lock. The upper lock, a single chamber, remains in much the same condition and is located near the dam. The Manayunk canal and its locks opened for use in 1819, despite bouts with lack of funding and poor workmanship. Although no longer standing, toll houses were located near each lock to collect the fare. Later a hydro-electric generating station at the upper lock produced electricity for the Philadelphia Transit Company. Its structure and machinery remain as a ruin.
 
The construction of the canal and locks ended the shad fishing industry in Manayunk, as it had along the whole route to Port Carbon, thus all were not in favor of the navigation company. In addition, the tow-path, begun in 1825 and originally located under the railroad spur on the Schuylkill side of the canal, came as an afterthought.
11 According to Charles Hagner, the local residents had some problems with it as well.
 
“There was a farm, having a river front, where the owner's cattle were daily driven to water. The company, without asking his consent, made the tow-path along the shore, and on his driving his cattle, as usual, to water them, there came along an official of the Company, and fined him five dollars for driving his cattle on the tow-path, over his own ground, and for which he had never received any compensation . 12
 
As a by-product to the construction of the canal, the managers of the navigation company offered water power along the canal for sale. Measured in numbers of inches, the company charged $3.00 an inch per year.
13 Sales began slowly, for as Hagner described, “Many persons came to view the place as with the idea of purchasing power and building mills, but were unwilling to run the risk of freshets, and declined.” Captain John Towers purchased the first site in 1819, followed by Hagner the next year. They remained alone until 1821 when the pace increased. By the beginning of 1822, 300 inches had been sold and by the end of the year sales totaled 1,005 inches and the price had increased to $4.50 an inch. 14
 
While the canal provided the impetus for manufacturing to develop in Manayunk, other factors, such as the introduction of labor saving devices, the availability of experienced and cheap labor, and the abundant markets served to spur its growth.
15 However, as a source of power, the Manayunk canal was not as reliable as the stockholders of the navigation company and the manufacturers would have hoped.
 
“Steam Versus Water—We notice that our manufacturers are determined to be troubled no longer with the interruption of low and high water. Heretofore in the spring season, they were greatly annoyed with too much water, compelling them to stop, and during the dry summer months, vice versa, too little water to allow them to run... But now we observe our enterprising friend, Mr. A. Campbell, is about introducing a new engine of about 200 horsepower and will hereafter do away with water altogether. 16
 
The Schuylkill Navigation Company achieved its greatest prosperity between the 1830s and 1840s, increasing its tonnage every year. As the only method of transporting coal from Port Carbon, the company thrived until it fell victim to stiff competition brought on by the formation of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, and its construction of a line to Pottstown in 1844. Forced to reduce its tolls, the navigation company incurred debt for the first time since its inception.
17 In 1850 a tremendous flood required complete rebuilding of the route, at a cost which brought on more debt than the company could overcome. In spite of the improvements to the canal, the attention to competitive prices, and continuous increased tonnage, by the eve of the Civil War, the Schuylkill Navigation Company was beginning to lose the battle. After a significant drop in cargo during the Civil War, a devastating drought, and another catastrophic flood, the company could no longer compete and leased the canal to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, who in turn used it to increase its capacity for the transport of coal.  In 1889 the railroad company built a spur, the Venice line, along the mule tow path, further limiting the usefulness of the canal. The last commercial boat made the trip in 1917, although the route was available for pleasure boats up to the 1940s. In 1945 the Schuylkill River Desilting Project, undid much of the engineering that comprised the navigation of the Schuylkill River. 18
 
After a period of decay brought on by the slow demise of manufacturing in Manayunk, the canal was purchased by the City of Philadelphia and improved as a recreation area. Now a part of the Fairmount Park system, the waterway serves another function, yet much of it remains to serve as a monument to the industrialization of America.

1  Stuart Wells, The Schuylkill Navigation and the Girard Canal , (University of Pennsylvania, unpublished thesis), p. 11 cites “Some Proposals for a Second Settlement in the Province of Pennsylvania,” (England, 1690).
2  Edward P. Richardson, "The Athens of America 1800-1825" , Philadelphia, A Three Hundred Year History, Weigley, ed. (New York, 1982), p. 239.
3  Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790-1860  (Washington D.C. 1986), pp. 106-7; and Richardson, p. 237.
4  Hagner, p. 42. According to Hagner, “White and Hazard were using in their rolling mill bituminous coal. They knew of the large body of anthracite coal at the head of the Schuylkill, and early commenced making experiments with it; they had some brought down by teams at an expense of one dollar per bushel (twenty eight dollars per ton.) They expended some three hundred dollars in experiments, but could not exceed in making it burn. The hands in the mill got heartily sick and tired of it, and it was about being abandoned; but, on a certain occasion, after they had been trying for a long time to make it burn without success, they became exasperated, threw a large quantity of the "black stones" as they called them, into the furnace, shut the doors and left the mill; it so happened that one of them had left his jacket in the mill, and in going there for it some time after, he discovered a tremendous fire in the furnace—the doors red with heat. He immediately called all hands, and they ran through the rolls three separate heats of iron with that one fire.”
5  Hagner, p. 45.
6  Hagner, p. 51.
7  Main Street Manayunk National Register Historic District nomination, Richardson, p. 329; and Wells, p. 20.
8  Hindle and Lubar, p. 107.
9  Shelton, p. 55.
10  Hagner, p. 52. The term “freshets” refers to the flooding typical to springtime thawing or particularly heavy rains.
11  Wells, p. 20
12  Hagner, p. 60.
13  An inch, according to Hagner was, the amount of water that “will pass through an aperture one inch square under a head or pressure of three feet measured from the surface of the water to the centre of the aperture.” p. 57.
14  Hagner, pp. 57 & 79.
15  Shelton, p. 56.
16   Manayunk Star and Roxborough Gazette , May 21, 1859, as quoted in Scranton, p. 224.
17  Wells. p. 30.
18  Wells, p. 45.


Update May 2007 (by Sara Jane Elk):
No change, except that the city added a bike path along the canal.