Scholla: The Schuykill-Union Canal Part I July 2, 1947

The story of the Schuykill-Union, main channel of the Pennsylvania canal system of more than a century ago, has many features which recommend themselves to students of inland waterways in America. Among these are the following. This canal was not constructed, as were many others, merely to connect two termini. Its plan was comprehensive and the vision of those who sponsored its construction was continental in scope. It was the first lap of the race between New York and Philadelphia in their efforts to be the metropolis of the new world. New York won, but not without struggle.

The frowning Alleghenies thwarted the “best laid schemes of mice and men.” The Erie snaked its level to the Great Lakes while the waters of the Schuykill, Tulpehocken, Quitapahilla, Swatara, Susquehanna, Juniata and their tributaries protested vainly against the unyielding foothills of the Appalachian ridges. Beyond lay Le Belle Riviere, the Ohio, gliding peacefully to the Mexican Gulf and the tropical seas, but from the craggy skylines of Sideling Mountain in Pennsylvania, the clatter of the stone-breaker’s hammer echoed back a defiant “No.” Water cannot run uphill.

The Schuykill-Union Canal offers the student an opportunity to study the methods of engineering, financing and construction which were used in the building of all canals.

A third reason for concentration interest upon this waterway is because of a peculiar twist in the affairs of men by which, although it failed in its original purpose of skimming cargoes over water from a great purpose, utterly unforseen by those who built it, for it tapped the greatest natural resource in the world- anthracite needed to feed the great factory fires that the industrial revolution had ignited.

Today there are swampy depressions lining the sides of the Schuykill and Tulpehocken. Weeds grow profusely in the hollows; frogs hide their green bodies in the scum of the undrained pools and mosquitoes breed their pesky broods in the stagnant recesses where clay bottoms have entrapped rainwater in volume too great for the sun to gather upwards.

Archaeologist have speculated a great deal about the Indian Mounds in Eastern Ohio but their conclusions remain little more than intelligent guesses of an age that is dead. The battlements thrown up by militiamen on the hills at Valley Forge are still discernible to the eye but time is gradually effacing these wrinkles in the brow of the earth which tell of man’s enmity to man. The entrenchments are melting into levels. The man-made walls which crawl along the banks of Berks streams are still recognizable as tow-paths and, eloquently, they still speak to tell us moderns the purpose that they were built to serve. People still tread them, but today the are used by strollers along a Lover’s Lane, or by fisherman who wish to walk a fairly solid surface as they trek from one deep pool to another in the hope of ensnaring scaly victims.

At intervals of every few miles there may still be found huge piles of red sandstone, crumbling in disuse. These were the canal locks of another day. At several points where a road crosses the Tulpehocken, or the Swatara, there are two bridges instead of only one. On the south side the bridge is usually a roofed wooden structure, painted red; on the north side there is usually an arched, open bridge which crosses a ravine which once was the canal.

Here and there along the course of the streams one can see the deposits of slag, the wastes of iron furnaces and forges which at one time sought the water of the stream and the commerce of the canals. Now and then there is a cluster of dwellings near what once was a canal lock. But the canal itself-Ichabod! (Next Account: Early Plans for a Waterway Through Berks.)

canal cartoon1

Cartoon by Leroy Gensler.

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