Scholla: The Schuykill-Union Canal Part IV As Weston Wanted It July 9, 1947

William Weston, the British engineer, examined  the surveys which Rittenhouse had made and found no errors in them. Somewhat to the dismay of the original organizers, however Weston came up with some ideas which revolutionized their plans. He recommended a still water canal running along side the large streams rather than a channel dredged through them. This plan would cost a great deal more than the relatively simple plan that Rittenhouse had advanced. For  example, the Rittenhouse estimate for clearing the Tulpehocken was only 1.519 pounds while the Weston estimate for construction of a canal along the side of the creek was 186,000 pounds or nearly one hundred times as great, for the same distance.

In his first report Engineer Weston revealed that he, too, had caught the spirit of a long series of canals extending westward to the Gulf and Great Lakes. In 1793 he wrote: “This canal is intended to form the double purpose of forming a capital link in the great chain of western navigation from the Ohio and Lake Erie to Philadelphia.” He hastened to assure the people of Philadelphia that the Schuykill would still contain enough water to supply the needs of the people to the city.

There was a great deal of opposition to draining water from the Schuykill into coffer dams for canalization. An expert Dr. Henry Latrobe, was summoned to give his opinion on this point. One of Latrobe’s statements is interesting to us here in view of the polluted condition of the Schuykill today. He reported: “The principal circumstance is the uncommon purity of the water. Its (the river’s) bed is everywhere narrow, rocky and its sources lie entirely in the limestone country.” True then, but now its bed is soft and black, sooted over with layers of silt.

One year after the Weston report was submitted a new society was formed in Philadelphia. It had as its purpose the advancement of internal improvements in Pennsylvania. Fifty members contributed $100 each to defray the expenses of a Mr. Strickland who was sent to Europe to study the construction of still water canals.

The Schuykill and Susquehanna Navigation Company agreed to accept the Weston plan for lining canal route along the banks of rivers and creeks. An initial sum of 150,000 pounds, or three-quarters of a million dollars was needed to make a beginning. Most this sum was raised by selling shares and by conducting a lottery among the residents of the city of Philadelphia. The dimensions of the canal as proposed by Weston were to be as folows.

Width at Bottom – 20 feet

Depth of Water – 3 1/2 feet

Width at top – 30 1/2 feet

Width of tow-path – 10 feet

Tow Path not less than one foot above the water level. Locks large enough to receive boats 60 feet long and nine feet wide. Descent of canal at a rate of two inches per mile.

The London canal which had been constructed a few years earlier had a descent of three inches. This was found to be more than necessary and merely served to increase the cost of repairs.

Work began in 1795. Diggers with picks and shovels could extend the ditches at the rate of six miles per year. At this rate it would have taken 50 years to reach Pittsburgh. Of course there were groups work in several sections of the country. Simultaneously and eventually the ditches would be joined. Nevertheless 30 years were consumed in digging the Schuykill-Union sections of the canal. The Rittenhouse plan could have been made operative in a few years, but the it was not until 1827 that Reading on the Schuykill, was joined to MIddletown on the Susquehanna. In that same year an iron horse was snorting his prophetic ways across wooden rails which led from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to Prompton a few miles away. The smoke which curled from the funnel of that locomotive wrote a mysterious message against the walls of the sky. Today we know that it presaged the doom of the canals.


28. LOCK No. 42–GENERAL VIEW – Union Canal Locks, Bernville, Berks County, PAPhotos from Survey HAER PA-66

Area inundated by the Army Corps of Engineers in creation of the Blue Marsh Project.


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