Scholla: The Schuykill-Union Canal Part II (Early Plans for a Waterway through Berks County) July 4, 1947

The first canal to be built within the territorial United States was constructed in New York province in 1759, 80 years before the completion of the Union Canal through western Berks. In 1769 the American Philosophical Society published an appeal to the people of Philadelphia asking for funds to undertake construction of a sea level canal “between navigable waters of the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.” This canal was begun in 1804 and completed in 1829. It still operates today, permitting some types of ocean-going vessels to cut across the peninsula which forms the eastern shore of Del. Md-Va.

The idea of a canal along the Schuykill was fostered by the Penn heirs as early as 1761. In that year the Proprietors appointed a board of commissioners to dredge the Schuykill from the Blue Mountains which would mean present day Port Clinton to the Point where the Schuykill joins the Delaware. The organization which was formed by these commissioners was called the Schuykill Navigation Company.

While this plan did not mean that a canal would be built, it was a step in the right direction of constructing  of an inland waterway into the interior of the province and planted the seeds of the later vision of connecting the two Pennsylvania rivers which parallel the Atlantic littoral, namely the Schuykill and Susquehanna.

The first survey along the Tulpehocken and creeks to the westward was made in 1793. A group of wealthy Philadelphians conceived the idea of extending the tongue of the Schuykill until it licked the banks of the Susquehanna. A grand lottery was organized to raise the necessary funds. We have seen some of these lottery tickets in the archives of one of our ancient churches near Reading. “Baron” Stiegel’s own church at Manheim was one of the patrons of the lottery.

The personnel of that first surveying party is well known to most persons in Berks County. There was David Rittenhouse, the chief surveyor. Rittenhouse had surveyed the Mason and Dixon line 30 years earlier. He was acknowledged to be the greatest American astronomer of his time. His diary tells us that one Gottlieb Rohrer carried the survey chain as the party progressed along the Tulpehocken. The surveyor’s chain of that time was known as Gunthers chain. 66 feet long.

Tench Francis, the business manager of the Penn Estates, accompanied Rittenhouse on this journey. Robert Morris, the financier, was active in all kinds of land speculation at this time. He came to see the promise that Tulpehocken offered. Gen. Joseph Hiester, destined to become governor of Pennsylvania, joined the party when it came to Berks. Dr. William Smith, the first provost of the University of Pennsylvania, was interested in Rittenhouse and his work along the Tulpehocken. He made notes  as the party moved westward.

And in that party was the surveyor who had become the first President of the United States, George Washington, of Virginia. It was on this occasion that the Father of His Country turned aside from the banks of the Tulpehocken, near Womelsdorf, to bow his head at Conrad Weiser’s grave and declare,”Posterity will not forget his services,” a phrase now chiseled into many stone tablets.

The plan which these empire builders had in mind was a an ambitious one. Reading was to be designated as a port of deposit. Westward from Reading boats were to pass along the Tulpehocken. Then a canal was to be dug through dry land for four miles and 24 chains joining the waters of the Tulpehocken and Quitapahilla creeks; thence to the Swatara Creek, which empties into the Susquehanna near present day Middleton, Dauphin County. The the bar of the letter H would be formed connecting the two rivers. Next Account: The Rittenhouse Plan.


David Rittenhouse by Charles Wilson Peale


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