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Pennsylvania Canal, Boucher, 1908

Canals; Their Effect on the Commerce of Pittsburg.

At the close of the Revolution the people of the Colonies began at once to agitate the transportation question. This agitation was first applied to country roads which served well their day and generation. Next after these came canals. Water always had been, and perhaps always will be, the cheapest medium of transportation when practical, and where speed is not a requisite. Wind has been the great power which has 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 often forgotten that he was equally prominent in canal building prior to the great invention so inseparably connected with his name and fame. Fulton was a native of Lancaster county, and in early life spent several years in England studying the question of inland navigation. There he published a book illustrated with drawings of canal boats, aqueducts and locks for lifting and lowering boats. On his return to the United States he urged canal building as a method of internal navigation for the commerce of his native state. 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 in our land and 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. The extravagant prophecy would probably have been realized had not better methods of transportation been introduced.

It must not be supposed that canals were new in the world's history at that time. They had been used in Egypt and China even before the days of Julius Caesar, and had for centuries been used throughout Europe before the days of Robert Fulton, but most of the canals of Europe, although of ingenious conception, were impracticable in America, and none were so valuable to us as those which were outlined and advocated by our own Pennsylvania inventor.

In 1791 a "Society for Promoting Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation" was formed in our state and 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, it will be remembered, the Mississippi was closed to American commerce for the Spaniards owned Louisiana, and they were somewhat hostile to the United States. Nor was the situation improved by its sale to France for that country was almost equally hostile to us. But when Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte for the United States in 1803, the great object sought by our people from that time forward was a connection between the Delaware and the Ohio rivers.

The advantages of such an achievement, particularly to Pittsburg, must be easily obvious to any one who contemplates its surroundings at that time. The Louisiana purchase meant more to Western Pennsylvania than we are likely to imagine now. It gave this great isolated section, rich in its products or rather rich in the possibility of its products, its first real outlet to the seaboard and to the commerce of the world. It was equally beneficial to the East and that section of Pennsylvania, far in advance of the West in wealth, became greatly interested in the canal across our state so that our products gathered by the three rivers at Pittsburg, might not reach the East 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, 1825. The result was that the cost of carrying freight over the route from Buffalo to the Hudson river was at once reduced from $100 per ton to $10 per ton, and a still further reduction came later. This awakened our people to the great importance of a similar waterway across Pennsylvania. The legislature took up the question and had surveys made of all the principal rivers in order that the most practicable route might he selected. They began on the theory that a canal across the Allegheny mountains was impossible, but they had the enterprise to arrange that the gap might be supplied by good roads across the mountains.

Much time was spent in trying to locate the canals on the east and west side of the Allegheny mountains, so that the roads crossing them would be as short as possible. In 1824 the assembly authorized the appointment of three canal commissioners to explore and determine on the best route from Philadelphia to Pittsburg, 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 river, and the Conemaugh river 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 Pittsburg to the mouth of the Kiskiminetas river. The object of these commissioners was evidently that both the Juniata and Allegheny rivers should be made navigable by slack water improvements. The legislature appropriated $300,000 for the building of the canal, so that the work could begin 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. About this time the slack-water projects for the navigation of the Juniata and Allegheny rivers was abandoned, and the canal, when completed, reached from the Susquehanna river to Holidaysburg at the base of the eastern slope of the Allegheny mountains, and from Johnstown, at the foot of the western slope, to Pittsburg. The canals were managed by a board of Canal Commissioners, consisting of three men appointed by the governor. The appointment was one of the most important in the state, and most invariably our leading business men were at first selected for these positions.

Next to the canal system itself, the question of the route by which it was to enter Pittsburg and where it was to have its terminus, was uppermost in the minds of the citizens of the place. Allegheny City people, as might be supposed, saw no need of it being extended over the river, but Pittsburgers looked upon it as a question of vast importance to their commercial interests, as they expected to connect it with other canal systems reaching to the West and North, thus gaining better shipping facilities. One plan advanced, was to extend the canal down Liberty and Penn streets; another down Smithfield street, and still a third scheme, was to tunnel a route through Grant's Hill, the objective point being the mouth of Sukes run, which emptied into the Monongahela river. After much delay and local parley, the tunnel route was settled upon and carried out. Whether it was a wise or an unwise choice, matters not at this time when the old style canals in Pittsburg are a matter of the past, the railroads having long since superseded them. Thus it happened that the canal entered Pittsburg by means of an aqueduct constructed over the Allegheny river, the main canal reaching the Monongahela river through the Grant's Hill Tunnel, emerging at a point near Try street, thence to the mouth of Sukes run. What was styled the "Basin" was located at what is now Eleventh street and Penn avenue, near the present Pennsylvania railway Union Station, where the collection and distribution of freight and passengers was carried on. The scene there was one of a truly busy mart. Numerous warehouses, owned by the various transportation companies, were located along the several "Slips," or shorter canals, which diverged from the main "Basin," where boats were daily seen with their heavy cargoes of freight, being loaded or unloaded. Since the abandonment of the canal system for railway service, the scenes along the line of this canal, and its feeders, have been greatly transformed so that scarcely a trace of the old canal can be seen by the keenest-eyed passer-by, the excavations having long ago been filled up, and many tall buildings stand now where once stood the sluggish waters of the canal, bearing on its turbid bosom its valuable merchandise. During the latter part of June, 1827, the western division of the canal was under contract. The construction of the Allegheny river aqueduct was undertaken by La Barron for the sum of $100,000, but on his failure to complete the work, it was finished by another contractor. The tunnel through Grant's Hill to the Monongahela river was let to Meloy & Company at $61,000. It was stipulated that both tunnel and aqueduct should be completed March 1, 1829.

The Gazette of June 23, 1829, said: "The waters of the canal have at length arrived within the bounds of Alleghenytown." The Mercury of September, 1829, announced that: "The canal packet, 'General Lacock,' under Captain Leonard, made its first trip on the last of June, 1829, on the western division of the canal, the starting point being opposite Herr's Island."

In 1830 David Leech owned and conducted a line of canal boats between Blairsville and Pittsburg, the rates being: for freight, twenty cents per hundred pounds, and two cents a mile for passengers. The reader will appreciate the bit of sarcasm with which the following paragraph, which appeared in the Statesman, in August, 1832, was tinctured:

Boats have passed the subterranean passage through Grant's Hill and safely debouched into the Monongahela river. The canal is also generally navigable and an inland trade is brisk. Some skeptical gentlemen have affected not to understand the underground project, but they may now not only see through it, but go through it in a canal-boat.

Mr. David Stevenson, an English engineer, made the journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburg in 1836, and gave an extensive and well prepared account of it. The entire distance, he said, was 395 miles which he traveled in ninety-one hours at an average rate of about four and one-half miles per hour, and at a cost of three pounds sterling, nearly four cents per mile. One hundred and eighteen miles of this distance was made by railroad, and this method of travel he styles as "extraordinary." The main part of the journey, 277 miles, was made by the Pennsylvania canal. He came by the Columbia railroad from the Delaware river to the town of Columbia on the Susquehanna; thence by the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers and by the canal to Hollidaysburg at the eastern base of the Allegheny mountains. Over the mountains he came on the Portage road to Johnstown, where he took the canal down the Conemaugh and Allegheny rivers to Pittsburg. Canal boats for the central division of the canal were frequently hauled on the railroad to Columbia and there put into the canal and brought to Hollidaysburg. That division of the canal had thirty-three aqueducts and one hundred and eleven locks, rose 585 feet between its eastern terminus and the foot of the Allegheny mountains at Hollidaysburg.

The Portage road, thirty-six miles long, cost $1,860,000, and required fully two years of steady work, work as work was then done, to build it. It had a second line of rails in 1835, two years after the completion of the first. It crossed the mountain at Blair's Gap, 2,326 feet above sea level, and had a tunnel on the summit about 900 feet long. Much of this distance was made by side hill cuttings and embankments, which required heavy walls, some of them being 100 feet high. At the head of the incline was a thirty horse power engine, which by the means of a large cable pulled the trains, the descending and ascending ones moving at the same time on the double track. Three cars, each laden with three tons were considered a load for the stationary engine and cable. Twenty-four cars with seventy-two tons freight could be taken over an incline in an hour, and this was abundantly rapid for the traffic of the road as it existed at that time, for there were during its first years seldom more than a hundred cars passed over it per day. For passenger traffic the trip over the Portage road was a very tedious one. A passenger might start from Hollidaysburg in the morning, say at nine o'clock, and reach the summit of the mountain at noon, where, after a wait of an hour, during which time he could dine at a hotel, he could resume his journey and reach Johnstown at about five o'clock p. m. Rarely ever were there less than six or seven hours of actual time consumed in traveling this distance of thirty-six miles.

The western division of the canal, 105 miles long, had 64 locks, and 16 aqueducts, and a tunnel about 1,000 feet long. Canal business had scarcely begun in earnest when the agitation of building a railroad across the state begun. The Pennsylvania Canal is said to have cost the state $26,000,000 originally, and subsequent outlays for loss by floods, repairs, changes, improvements, etc., brought the cost up to $40,000,000.00. The canal, during the latter years of its existence, was managed by politicians who were appointed as Canal Commissioners by the successive administrations of the state. Resultant upon this method of appointment, its management was a constant expense to the state during its entire life. It was almost universally called the "Old State Robber." In 1847 the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased it from the state for $7,500,000. It had already entailed a debt on the state of about $40,000,000, the payment of which required nearly a generation. But the state gained immensely by the canal, for it saved the traffic of the West from going across New York by the Erie canal. This traffic built up Pittsburg and Philadelphia, and developed all the intervening territory in Pennsylvania, The reader will readily notice by the census table elsewhere in this work that Pittsburg's growth was slow until the canal was finished and that, barring a few financial depressions, its progress in population and wealth has been rapid and steady ever since. The business men of the city should never forget the debt they owe to the old Pennsylvania canal.

The canal came down the Conemaugh river from Johnstown and crossed the Allegheny river at the mouth of the Kiskiminetas on an aqueduct, and then came down the western bank of the Allegheny river to Allegheny City. There were two branches of it the one branch followed Lacock street to the river near Balcam street, while the other crossed the Allegheny by an aqueduct built at a great expense and came into Pittsburg. The canal on the Pittsburg side came up to the intersection of Penn avenue and Eleventh street, where the "Basin," a very important adjunct of the canal, was constructed. There were several short branches of the canal in Pittsburg, which led to warehouses and other prominent places for the taking on and unloading of freight. The main line of the canal came up Eleventh street, crossing Liberty street to Seventh avenue. There it entered a tunnel by which it passed under Grant's Hill, and came out onto the Monongahela river near Try street. The mouth of the tunnel entering Grant's Hill was a short distance below the present tunnel of the Panhandle railroad.

The canal very greatly reduced the cost of transporting commodities between Pittsburg and Philadelphia. The average freight charges on the canal between these two cities was about one cent per pound and the time consumed by freight boats was between six and seven days. Packets on the canal, which carried passengers, ran more rapidly, making the journey one way in about three days on an average. The fare was also much less than the fare by stage coach. So the canal took from the turnpike a great deal of its travel and freight and was of great advantage to Pittsburg in its day.

Canal boats were not expensive, and a man with a capital of but a few hundred dollars could purchase a boat, employ a few laborers and engage in the general canal transportation business. Had the management been kept out of politics it might have resulted in great gains rather than in immense losses for the state. The authorities of Pennsylvania were anxious to improve the state and enlarge its traffic in every way and in doing so they probably grasped and undertook more than they were able to manage and pay for. Every outlying section of the state wanted its share of the improvements. To secure the votes of the legislators of these remote districts so that the main line improvements might be introduced, concessions had to be made to them that were in the end ruinous to the entire system of internal improvements.

The business done by the canal for the year ending with October, 1833, may be seen by the following table, which shows the traffic of the eastbound boats only:

Months . . . Tonnage . . . Passengers miles traveled . . . Value

1832 . . . November . . . 470,320 . . .6,152 . . . $330.72
     December . . . 401,020 . . . 18,246 . . . 228.05
1833 . . . January . . . 215,593 . . . 645 . . . 60.10
     February, closed.
     March . . . 388,966 . . . 605 . . . 203.94
     April . . . 1,187,670 . . . 990 . . . 548.30
     May . . . 712,578 . . . 8,326 . . . 581.10
     June . . . 1,512,809 . . . 136 . . . 576.95
     July . . . 943,000 . . . 1,102 . . . 498.28
     August . . . 820,440 . . . 1,593 . . . 486.87
     September . . . 814,669 . . . 1,257 . . . 597.02
     October . . . 939,578 . . . 1,228 . . . 802.74
   Total . . . 8,406,643 . . . 40,280 . . . $4,917.07

By the above it will be seen that the canal was closed during the month of February. This was, of course, due to the cold weather, which did not generally last more than one month in a year. The Erie canal was frequently frozen up three, four or even five months in a year, and the Pennsylvania people took advantage of this by spreading it broadcast, so as to draw the trade from a route which they said was liable to be "frozen up half the year."

In the early thirties a firm, consisting of Peter Shoenberger, John McFadden, John D. Davis, John and William Bennett, John Dougherty, James M. Davis, G. and J. H. Shoenberger, had formed a company known as the Reliance Transportation Company. Their object was to operate a line of hacks or stages three times a week between Pittsburg and Uniontown. In June, 1839, this company sold out to the Reliance Portable Boat Company, which was composed of the same men, except John Dougherty. They at once engaged in the canal-boat trade. In 1840 the principal canal transportation companies were: David Leech & Co., of the Western Line; H. & P. Graff, of the Union Line; Laaffe & O'Connor, of the Portable Car Body Line; John McFadden & Co., of the Portable Iron Boat Line; William Bingham, of Bingham's Line; J. C. Reynolds, of the Dispatch Line, and McDowell & Co., of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Line.

No improvement up to this time in the history of Pennsylvania was attended with so much benefit to Pittsburg and the West as the completion of this canal. Towns and villages sprung up all along its route, and those who will look at the population of Pittsburg will see that it increased correspondingly from that on. Blast furnaces were started in many sections of Western Pennsylvania at once. The mountains, which had hitherto been regarded as almost worthless, now became of great value because of their deposits of carbonate iron ore, and because they were densely covered with timber. The blast 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, Saltsburg, Leechburg, thence to Freeport and down the west bank of the Allegheny. It crossed the Conemaugh to the south bank at Lockport on a beautiful arched stone aqueduct, which stood for many years as a monument to the enterprise of the past, and was removed by the Pennsylvania railroad in 1888. The first canal boat on the western part of the canal was built at Apollo, and was called the "General Abner Leacock." It was intended as a freight and passenger boat, having berths and cabin like the steamboats of that period. Of course a great hinderance to this method of transportation was the road across the Allegheny mountains, but the genius of the age overcame that, and in 1834 a portage railroad over the mountains was built which connected the two canals. Its method of construction will be considered in the part of this work relative to the Pennsylvania railroad. As a result of its construction, a canal-boat was brought from the East over the canal where it was loaded on trucks and brought over the mountains to Johnstown, where it was again put on the canal and finally reached Pittsburg. The newspapers of that day heralded this as one of the great feats of business enterprise of modern times.

Capitalists invested money in all schemes along the line of the canal, and business men who were not interested in canal lines, in its boats, in iron furnaces, and in many other agents of transportation, such as turnpikes, stages, etc., were not regarded as the most enterprising or wealthy, nor were they supposed to be on the true highway to fortune.

A canal may be briefly described as an artificial water way over which boats were drawn by mules. By the side of the canal was a narrow path, called a tow-path, 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 readily be landed at the side opposite the tow-path when necessary. Each section of the canal was a level from one end to the other. The next section of the canal being lower or higher than the first, the boat was either 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. Those on the Monongahela near Pittsburg illustrate well the principle, but are much more complete than those in the early days of canal building with their limited capital would warrant. The average canal was about 30 feet wide and held from four to five feet of water. The canal boats varied in length and width. They were generally about 12 feet wide and from 25 to 50 feet long. Two boats could therefore pass each other, for a boat was never quite half as wide as the canals. These canals 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 its highest section, usually by a dam across a stream or river, and the water then moved slowly from there to the next section lower, and so on to the end of the canal. These basins being almost level, the water went so slowly that it often became stagnant in the summer, and there being almost no current at all, the boat could be landed at any time, and the draft was about the same going either way. It was indeed a very cheap system of transportation, and was well suited to that age of limited finances. Two mules could easily draw a canal boat laden with from 50 to 100 tons, and the average speed was about three miles per hour. The mules were driven on a rapid walk or slow trot, unless the boat was unusually heavily laden. While this speed was sufficient for iron, coal, lumber, stone or almost any species of freight, it was too slow for passenger traffic, and the canals were never, therefore, very much opposition to stage lines passing over the turnpike between Pittsburg and Philadelphia. They were; however, of great advantage in the transportation of freight and reduced the wagon trade correspondingly on the pike.

From the Blairsville Record of July 23, 1829, we copy the following: "We have delayed the publication of our paper until 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 by 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 lock below this place in the short space of three minutes. The boats are handsomely fitted up and well calculated to give comfort to the passengers. They were welcomed at our wharves by the presence of many citizens of both sexes. They departed at nine o'clock this morning for Pittsburg." These were the first real passenger boats which passed over the canal, though freight boats had been used about two years before this.

One of the most interesting descriptions of travelling by canal in Western Pennsylvania is given by Charles Dickens in his American notes, written during his first visit to the United States in 1842. He arrived in Pittsburg at 9:30 p. m., on March 28, and his arrival was announced in the Morning Chronicle on March 29. So the trip which he describes was taken on the 28th. Dickens came from Johnstown on David Leech's packet called the "Express," and went from Pittsburg to St. Louis. From his 'Notes' we quote the following: "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, going aboard 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' goes 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 drive 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 their dreams, which would be a mere mingling of the real and the ideal. All 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 us 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 voluntary 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 to this weakness, fished the dirty water out of the canal and poured it into a tin basin secured in a 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, with a public comb and hair-brush. And yet, despite these oddities, often they had for me, at least, a humor of their own -- there was much in this mode of travelling which I hardly enjoyed at the time, and look back upon it now with great pleasure. Even the running up barenecked at five o'clock in the morning from the painted cabin to the dirty deck, scooping up the icy water, plunging one's head into 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, burning 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."

Source document: Boucher, John Newton, 1854-1933. "A century and a half of Pittsburg and her people" by John Newton Boucher ; illustrated, Vol. 1. p.394-403. [New York] : The Lewis Publishing Company, 1908.

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