The Canal Era in Pennsylvania

The year is 1797, and the very first canal in Pennsylvania, the Conewago Canal, is taking riverboats around Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River near York Haven. Being able to bypass that river hazard sped up travel and made transporting goods from Maryland to Pennsylvania that much easier.

In the early decades of the 19th century, Pennsylvanians built hundreds of miles of canals with the hope of gaining a competitive business advantage for moving goods and people. They were heartened by the Erie Canal in New York, constructed between 1817 and 1825.

Some of the Pennsylvania canals of the day included:

  • The privately funded Lehigh Canal, which ran along the lower Lehigh River and provided the first reliable supply of anthracite coal to eastern manufacturers.
  • The Schuylkill Canal from Philadelphia to Port Carbon
  • The Union Canal from Reading to Middletown
  • Main Line Canal from Columbia to western Pennsylvania
  • Susquehanna Network
  • Beaver and Erie Network

The heyday of canals was short-lived. By 1850, steam engine technology had advanced far enough to create trains that could move heavy freight faster than canal boats. Two years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad began offering rail service from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and in 1857, it bought the Main Line Canal from the state. By 1859, all canals owned by the state had been sold. The Pennsylvania Railroad formed the Pennsylvania Canal Company in 1867 and continued to use canals for freight transportation, but by 1900, most canals in the Commonwealth were no longer in use. Only the Delaware and Lehigh canals remained in business until the early 1930s.

And while canals no longer haul freight from place to place, you can still see the remnants of these old waterways in places across the state. One example is at the National Canal Museum, located in Easton, PA. Their staff show visitors how canals worked and benefited Pennsylvania’s economy. To plan a visit, visit https://canals.org.