PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) – Along Walnut Street in Harrisburg is a state marker that commemorates the first dedication of a lock on the Pennsylvania Canal, which was constructed between 1826 and 1834.
In a sense, the story of the Pennsylvania Canal has its start in New York. In 1817 Construction began on the Erie Canal, which is still a going concern today. Connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, the canal cut travel time from weeks to a few days, giving the state a tremendous advantage in the competition to move goods, services, and people between East and West.
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Not to be outdone, in 1824 Pennsylvania created a canal commission, then in 1826 chartered the Pennsylvania Canal, which was to stretch from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
The Pennsylvania Canal has a lot of historical markers, which is not surprising since it covered a lot of territory. The canal, which became known as the Main Line of Public Works, stretched 394 miles. (The term “Main Line” is still used a lot in the suburban Philadelphia area, but it’s safe to say many people have no idea where it comes from.) When it was finished in 1834, you could travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in three to five days.
Put the canal wasn’t all waterway. The stretch from Philly to Columbia was actually a railroad, with horse-drawn cars. (Instead of hammering rails into wooden ties like modern railroads, the Philadelphia and Columbia placed their rails on shaped stones called sleepers. This left an open area between the tracks, where the horses could walk without tripping.)
To conquer the Allegheny Mountains, the canal built the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which is now a national historic site. An elaborate pully system moved canal boats up and down ramps over the mountains between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. Special canal boats were built for the railroad, with three segments that could be separated to reduce the load on the system.
The longest section of the canal was the Juniata Division, which ran 125 miles from Clarks Ferry Bridge at the confluence of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers to Hollidaysburg.
The Pennsylvania Canal extended branches north and south. Private companies built their own canals. Over 1200 miles connected the commonwealth at the height of the canal era,
But the reign of the canal was short. Building and maintaining a channel (not to mention the holding ponds, dams, and aqueducts to keep the channels filled) was difficult and expensive. Boats had to travel slowly so they wouldn’t damage the canals with their wakes. And in the winter the canals iced up and shut down.
But what really killed the canal was a new technology-the steam locomotive. Laying track was simpler and cheaper than digging channels, and trains could travel faster than canal boats. (The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad switched from horses to steam engines just a few years after it opened.) When the Pennsylvania Railroad opened its line from Philly to Pittsburgh in 1852, travel time dropped to mere hours.
In 1857 the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the Main Line canal at a public auction. In 1859 all canals owned by the commonwealth were sold off. The canals continued to function under private ownership, but by 1875 the canals were in severe decline. The last canal boat went through Harrisburg in 1901.