Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1991 Volume 29 Number 4, Pages 135–140

The Schuylkill Navigation Company : Canal and Lock 60

Bob Elmer and Leslie Lighton-Humphreys

Page 135

In 1815 the State of Pennsylvania granted a charter to the Schuylkill Navigation Company to make internal improvements "to make a Lock Navigation on the River Schuylkill" that would make the river navigable. From its headwaters near Port Carbon, in Schuylkill County, to Philadelphia the river flows 126 miles, but many sections of it were either too shallow or had rapids or falls that made it impossible for a boat or barge to get through. The solution, before the time of the railroads, was to build canals around these obstacles.

Before this the only way to navigate the river was to load the barges -- and then wait for a storm. With the river swollen from the rains, the boatman could ride the storm down the river. You can imagine what it was like at the time, with the water churning in the storm. But that was the only way they could get over the rapids and shallow spots. It could be an exciting night!

Work was started by the new corporation in 1815, and the full length of the system was opened for traffic ten years later, in 1825.

The Schuylki11 Canal is often overlooked in writings about canals, perhaps because it was not just one canal but a part of an overall river navigation system that wove in and out of the river. The system was actually a series of dams and canals all the way down the river, a distance of 108 miles. Where there was an obstacle they would put in a dam, and just above the dam would be an entrance to a section of canal, or, as it was called, a reach. Of the 108-mile navigable distance, 48 miles were in slackwater pools above the dams, while the remaining 60 miles were in the hand-dug canals. The source of the water for the canals, incidentally, was always the river itself.

Page 136

Upon reaching a dam a barge or boat would enter into a canal or reach, and continue in the canal until it could go back into the river again. The canal was generally higher in elevation than the river, and the boats or barges would be elevated or lowered by locks. Lock 60 in the system was located at Mont Clare, originally known as Quinceyville, below the Black Rock Dam across the river. The dam is a stone-filled timber crib structure eleven feet high and 170 feet long, with a slackwater pool that extends about three miles above it. It is one of 32 dams built as part of the navigation system.

There were originally 120 different locks in the system, but as improvements were made and engineers were able to produce more lift they took out some of them and increased the lift of others, ending up with a total of 72 locks when the work was completed in the 1840s. So this is Lock 60 of 72 altogether. (The locks were numbered in sequence as you go downstream from Port Carbon to Philadelphia, the numbers getting higher as you go towards Philadelphia, and this is thus the 60th lock from Port Carbon.)

Not all the locks were used to gain or lose elevation. Some of the locks, called guard locks, were built primarily to protect the canal from storms and flooding. Lock 60 was one of these guard locks. The difference in the height of the water level in the canal above the lock and the water level below the lock is only about 18 inches. (We thought there was a mistake somewhere, but when we looked at some of the old records we found that the drop for this lock was actually only 1.35 feet, or a little less than 18 inches.) So the purpose of this lock was really only to protect the canal and to allow the boats and barges to get into or leave it. It was at the lower end of the reach, near Oaks and the junction of the river with the Perkiomen Creek, that the boats were "locked through" and raised to the level of the canal or dropped down to the same level as the river.

A lock is like a box with a gate at each end. To elevate a boat or barge the lock tender would let water into the box; to lower it or drop it he would let water out. Since the canal was higher than the river, boats or barges coming upstream would be raised, while those going downstream would be lowered.

The places where the hinges on the gates were fastened to the sides of Lock 60 are still visible. In the corner of the wall of the lock are indentations that show where a strap of metal was anchored or imbedded into the stone work. With a metal loop, these were the hinges, or pivots, for the gates when they were opened or closed. (The wooden mitre gates were removed from the lock about 60 years ago.)

Page 137

The gates were like a >, pointing upstream, and when they were closed the pressure of the water against them held them together. In fact, when the full flow of the water was pressing against them they actually could not be opened; to open them the lock tender had to crank open a wicket gate, a small door in a larger door, first. This let out some of the water and reduced the pressure enough so that the bigger gates could opened.

The first lock here was built in 1821. [It is the smaller lock, on the left as you face downstream.] It was a small lock, about 12 feet wide and 40 feet long. Nearby there was a small wooden shelter, in which the lock tender could sit to keep out of bad weather or out of the direct sunlight. (Its foundations are still visible, and we have some pictures of the actual structure in the present lock house.) From this shelter the lock tender was able to look up and down the canal. It was his job to operate the lock and maintain the canal's water level during the nine months that the system was in operation each year, from May to December.

As time went on the company kept improving and changing the locks, and in 1839 a second, larger, lock was constructed at Lock 60. It was almost half again the size of the first one. A date stone for the lock can be seen in a corner of its wall, at the top. It was also at about this time that the stone lock house over looking the canal and the river was built.

The 150-year old stone lock house at Lock 60

With the second lock it was obviously possible for two boats or barges to be locked through at the same time.

There was, however, another reason for the new, larger lock. One of the reasons why the Schuylkill canal system was built was to connect with the Union Canal that had been built to connect the Susquehanna and Schuylkill rivers and came into the Schuylkill at Reading. Because of this, originally the Union Canal and the Schuylkill Navigation canals were the same width and the same depth. As it turned out, the Union Canal had technical and mechanical problems in maintaing and keeping the proper water level. (It was fed by several streams, and with its limestone bed and the drainage through the limestone, it was destined not to be a very practical canal.) As a result, in 1832 it was decided to build a railway system between Philadelphia and Columbia, on the Susquehanna, as a part of a state-operated "Main Line of Public Works", and the smaller Union Canal was simply by-passed. In the meantime, with improvements in technology, it was possible to transport goods in larger barges that could carry more cargo, and so the larger lock was built to accommodate the bigger craft.

Page 138

The stone of the new lock is beautifully dressed out. It obviously took hours and hours of labor and hand-work. There's a story behind this, too. In the charter for the Schuylkill Navigation Company the State put a cap on the percentage of profit the company could make. When the company was making money -- those few short years -- it was making so much money that it looked for ways to spend it so that the profits would not exceed the allowed percentage. One of the things it did was to have workmen cut and dress the stone; it really was just "busy work", and there is no practical reason for the dressing. It was done just to keep the profits under the cap -- but it does look pretty! Even so, in some years the investors received dividends of as much as 19% on their investment.

The barges were extremely long and narrow, in the beginning about 30 to 40 feet long and 10 to 12 feet in width. They were just about as wide as the canal locks, and pretty much filled its width, and were also almost the full length of the locks as well.

Mules were used to tow the cargo boats because they were more reliable than horses. They were also less expensive to keep, and could work longer. Horses were used for the packet boats, however, because they were faster. There were also probably some rafts, log rafts, on the river and canals; when they reached Philadelphia they could be disassembled and the parts and logs sold so they didn't have to be taken back upstream.

The "thumb" above Black Rock Dam

Below the Black Rock Dam the Schuylkill River is extremely shallow; you can, in fact, just about walk across most of it. Above the dam, there is an S-curve in the river's course, making a loop or an area shaped like a thumb sticking out. As barges going upstream came out of the canal into the slackwater behind the dam they would be pulled by the mules along the bank of the river around the loop to a rope ferry. There the mules would be put into the ferry, and the ferry operator would get up on the roof and, hand-over-hand with a pully system, ferry the mules across to the other side of the river. While he was doing this, the barge workmen would use poles to pole the barge all the way across. When they got to the other side they would hitch up the mules again, and continue up the tow path on the other side. (The navigation system, incidentally, did not always stay on the same side of the river, but changed sides every now and again to avoid bluffs or other obstacles to the tow path.) After a few years, the ferry system was discontinued and a long covered bridge was built across the river. There was an outside ramp on the bridge, on which the mules walked and continued to pull the barge across to the other side instead of the old method of poling the barges across.

Page 139

As mentioned earlier, the guard locks, such as Lock 60, were primarily to maintain the water level in the canal and to protect the canal from flooding during storms. While the height of the river fluctuates greatly during a storm, the canal itself is quite stable. This is because, in addition to the guard locks, through the length of the canal there is a series of waste weirs. When the water in the canal reaches the top of the waste weir it will flow through the weir and back into the river. The weirs, which are made of wood, can also be opened when we want to drain the canal for any reason. (Last year one of them rotted through, and in a matter of hours almost all the water was out of the canal. (The local community really pitched in -- we had about 20 people here -- including one person who worked for a metal company and got a 4 foot x 5 foot, 300-pound steel plate that we put in to close the hole up again. Fortunately, we didn't lose a great deal. Even most of the fish were saved!)

Actually, when we have a bad flood it is the river that is the problem. It ends up flowing into the canal, even though the canal is higher in elevation. The canal may go up a foot or so, but the river will rise ten feet, spill over its banks and over the towpath, and pour down into the canal. This has caused some erosion from time to time, washing the canal banks into the canal from the river side. But it happens only maybe once every other year or so.

There is also a canal on the other side of the river, but it was not part of the Schuylki11 Navigation System. It was called the Chester County Canal, and then later was known as the Phoenix Iron Canal. Its opening was very small, only about 12 feet wide, just wide enough for a small barge to get in to the steel company. It was originally built as a water supply for a cotton mill that was there, but when the steel business expanded it was used to bring in oyster shells and limestone from downriver. The barges came upstream, through Lock 60 and into the dam pool, and then were towed across the river into the canal entrance. The canal runs upstream, and connects with the French Creek, which is its water supply.

The section of the canal here at Lock 60 and extending down below the lock two and a half miles to Longford Road at Port Providence is the only section of the Schuylki11 Canal with water in it today. (Actually, there is another short section at Manayunk, but it is all built up there, with warehouses and factories right up close to it. They are revitalizing the towpath, but it is going to be a "touristy" area and is not in its natural state as it is here. This is beautiful!)

Today we call this section of the canal the Mont Clare/Port Providence Reach. The original reach, as noted earlier, was about half again as long, some three and three-quarters miles altogether, down to Oaks, and was known as the Oakes Reach, in honor of Thomas Oakes, one of the early engineers who was involved in its construction but who died before its completion. Unfortunately, the one and a quarter mile section between Port Providence and Oaks was filled in when the State of Pennsylvania was dredging the river in the 1950s, taking the silt out of the bottom. They needed a place to put the silt, and so they put it into the old canal.

Page 140

The Schuylki11 Navigation Company reached its height in total tonnage in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War. Ten years later, however, much of the lower part of the system was washed away by a major flood. In 1870 the system was bought by the Reading Railroad, which began a program of shutting down sections of the canal over the years and filling them in. This section was actually the next one slated to go, but got a reprieve when the Commonwealth acquired the system. Thus a part of the system was destroyed by nature, and the rest was filled in by man. The Mont Clare / Port Providence Reach is the only one that has been saved.

The last boat known to have traveled down through the system was in 1918. In the 1920s another was to come through: it moored up at the dam on the loop of land, but apparently broke free and went sailing on down over the dam and never got into the canal here.

In the early 1930s there was a hydro-electric plant just above Lock 60. It produced electricity for a trolley line that ran through Collegeville. The trolley operated on power generated from this station, a two-story brick building. The Philadelphia Electric Company, incidentally, now owns Black Rock Dam, and its Cromby Station is located on the other side of the river.

Beginning in about the 1950s this area was badly neglected. For many years, from the 1950s to 1984, the lock house was empty most of the time, and had fallen into disrepair, along with the rest of the area. (A week before the present tenants moved into the house in 1984 the back door was blown off by a pipe bomb as a deterrent to their occupying the house!) The place had become a haven for trespassers. It was a place for motorcycle gangs and others to party. If two people wanted to have a fight they would meet "at the end of the towpath" to fight it out, with large crowds, not unlike the old duelling grounds two centuries ago. Even today there are some local residents who have lived in the area for years and years who are afraid to come to our art show or Canal Day or other events because of the stories they have heard about the place!

But fortunately that has all changed now. In fact, it is not uncommon now to see women pushing baby carriages along the towpath. The area has completely turned around over the past eight or ten years, and the community has recognized and acknowledged what a resource it has here.

Although the State still owns the property, it has leased it, at a nominal rent, to Upper Providence township, in an effort to transfer the responsibility for its maintenance to the local people. We think this is great, because we are the ones who are close by.

To carry out this responsibility, in 1982 the township enlisted a number of residents to serve as volunteers on an advisory committee. Three years later the group became incorporated as the Schuylkill Canal Association, a tax-exempt publicly owned corporation. Through its efforts to improve this last remaining section of the canal and the Lock 60 area and its establishment of trails and parks, an important part of our natural and transportation heritage is being preserved.


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