Scholla: The Schuykill-Union Canal Part III The Rittenhouse Plan July 7, 1947

Perhaps it is not in order to say that the plans of David Rittenhouse and his associates were far ahead of their time in so far as they concerned building of a canal westward through Berks to the Susquhanna. But the plan did not stop there. Something more ambitious conjured itself up in their visions when their eyes roved beyond the rock bed of the Susquehanna–an extension of the canal, northward along the Susquehanna to the point where the Juniata flows in from the and then along a projection, westward along the “noble” Juniata to Standing Stone, or present day Huntingdon. There the problems would become serious, and yet it was reasoned that a few portages and mountain hauls would carry boats to the branches of the Allegheny River near Kiskiminetas.

From that point, west of the mountains, the canal could choose either or both of two branches, one going south to Pittsburgh where junction could be made with the Ohio and thence to New Orleans and the Gulf; the other cutting North to Conneaut Lake and from there to Lake Erie, the gateway to the Great Lakes. Had this entire project ever been completed it is interesting to speculate upon the effect it would have had upon the main channel, directly through Berks. The Lebanon Valley would have become the bottle for all inland traffic.

Rittenhouse submitted the results of his survey as follows: Philadelphia to Tulpehocken Creek, Reading 61 miles; up the Tulpehocken, 37 miles, 24 chains: canal cut to Quitapahilla, 4 miles, 25 chains; Swatara to Susquehanna 23 miles; Juniata to Huntingdon, 86 miles; Huntingdon to Poplar Run, 42 miles; a portage to Conemaugh 18 miles; Conemaugh to Stoney Creek (Johnstown), 19 miles; Stoney Creek to Allegheny 69 miles; down the Allegheny to the Ohio, 29 miles.

In his argument for the plan Rittenhouse stated that the canal distance to Pittsburge would be increased by one one-third of the land distance. He pointed out that the cost of water transportation was only one-twentieth as great as wagon rates, overland, and that this great difference would quickly absorb the increased cost of total mileage.

A protagonist for the Rittenhouse plan, signing himself as a a “Friend of National Unity,” pointed out that such a canal would serve to populate the western areas more quickly and would expedite shipments of agricultural goods eastward. In contrast he shows that the difficulties encountered by those who attempted to follow the mountain trails. in fact the dissertation is an excellent prophecy of what was finally achieved, not by the canal, but by its triumphant successors the railroad and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or Superhighway.

The proponents of the Rittenhouse plan formed the Schuykill-Susquehanna Navigation Company in 1793 with Robert Morris as president and Tench Francis as a treasurer. Dr. William Smith and David Rittenhouse were members of the Board of Directors

Estimates were made for dredging streams and building a short canal from the Tulpehocken to the Quitapahilla. These estimates, submitted  by Rittenhouse and one John Adlum were as follows: Dredging the Schuykill to Reading, 1147 pounds; Dredging the Tulpehocken, 1519 pounds; digging the canal to Quitapahilla, 1419 pounds; dredging the Swatara and Quitapa. 18,900 pounds. The last named streams are small, shallow and narrow, Doublessly the disproportionate figure of nearly 19,000 was in recognition of the problems that would be encountered there.

In 1760 David Rittenhouse had been employed to survey the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. This he accomplished with instruments of his own manufacture, but there were some officials who were not satisfied with the work of an American surveyor. Accordingly two Englishmen, named Mason and Dixon, were brought to America to check on the Rittenhouse survey. They found the work of the American surveyor to be correct in every detail. In 1793 another Englishman, an engineer named Weston, was brought to Philadelphia to check upon the Rittenhouse surveys of the Tulpehocken–Swatara Canal plans.

140985pr LOC

32. LOCK No. 46–GENERAL VIEW LOOKING TOWARDS LOCK – Union Canal Locks, Bernville, Berks County, PA Photos from Survey HAER PA-66

Lock was inundated by the Army Corps of Engineers by the Blue Marsh Project.

Image Source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.pa0106.photos/?sp=32

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