No, we did not dream the above caption. We found the account of the disaster in a newspaper clipping of 78 years ago, September 20, 1879. Like you, we rubbed our eyes in amazement, at first until we remembered Stouchsburg was once a port on the old Union Canal.
The story concerns one Capt. John Ringler and his steamboat. He set out from Reading to got to Lebanon via the Union Canal. At Stout’s Bridge, near Stouchsburg, the propeller of the boat become entangled in weeds which were choking the canal. It appears that the gull of the boat was raised higher than its normal level thus projecting the smokestack upward until it came in contact with the bridge and broke from its base. There was a great deal of hissing steam and smoke. The members of the crew became alarmed and deserted the boat, swimming to shore.
The presence of weeds in the canal bespeaks the gradual degeneration which canal traffic was suffering in 1879. A few years later the Union Canal was abandoned completely when Capt. John Zechman drove his boat, “Betty”, full force into the last locks on the canal at its eastern terminus which was at the spot where the Metropolitan Edison Plant now stands.
It may come as a surprise to readers to learn that the Schuykill Canal, operating between Pottsville and Philadelphia, was in use until comparatively recent times. Of course we know that cruising boats plied between Gibraltar and Monocacy as recently as 1940, using a segment of the old canal. But it may not be a matter of general knowledge that coal barges came down the canal from Pottsville to Reading as late as World War I and that a load of culm was brought to Reading from Pottsville as late as 1929!
Within the past year the Reading Railroad has turned its canal properties over to the state. Now the Pennsylvania Historical Commission is attempting to collect all data concerning the canal in order that a complete history may be compiled. Persons who have such material in their possession are requested to make it available to the state archives. If any readers have material such as account books, ledgers, diaries, photographs and so forth, we will welcome correspondence leading to the deposit of the articles in the proper quarters.
Image Source: Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.