Historical Markers
Pennsylvania Canal Historical Marker
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Pennsylvania Canal

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Liberty Ave. and Grant St. at railroad station, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
December 1, 1958

Behind the Marker

Aqueduct of the Pennsylvania Canal Below Harrisburg, PA, 1868, by Russell Smith. Oil on canvas.
Aqueduct of the Pennsylvania Canal Below Harrisburg, PA, 1868, by Russell Smith.
Constructed between 1826 and 1834, the state-owned Main Line of Public Works was the first transportation system to directly link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The hybrid, 395-mile-long system included four components: the markerPhiladelphia and Columbia Railroad (P&C), two sections of the Pennsylvania Canal, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Beginning in Philadelphia, the horse-powered Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad ran along the "Main Line" to Columbia on the Susquehanna River. From Columbia, the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Canal connected to the Juniata Division at Duncan's Island (Duncannon), near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers.
Photo the Lemon House
Lemon House
From there, the Juniata Division stretched to the markercanal basin at Hollidaysburg. Here, the innovative Allegheny Portage Railroad hauled the canal boats for thirty-six miles across the Allegheny Mountains, using five inclined planes on each side of the mountain, each with its own stationary steam engine to hoist the cars. Its trains passed through the 901-foot-long markerStaple Bend Tunnel, the first railroad tunnel in America, en route to the canal basin at Johnstown, where the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Canal stretched to the Allegheny River, and then along its banks for the final leg to Pittsburgh.

To find the men needed to build the two sections of the Pennsylvania Canal, the canal's operators placed advertisements in newspapers throughout Ireland that encouraged able-bodied men to come to America to work on the $10 million construction project. It took thousands of laborers, many of them immigrants, more than seven years to build the canal.

Map of Main Line of Public Works
Map of Main Line of Public Works
When completed, the Main Line of Public Works enabled the transportation of larger and heavier loads than those carried by the markerConestoga wagons that were then traveling along the markerNational Road and other state turnpikes. It also collapsed the time necessary for a cross-state trip from the twenty-three days that it took by freight wagon to just 4-1/2 days. The introduction of steam locomotives soon shortened the trip to only 3-1/2 days.

Originally constructed to transport manufactured and agricultural goods between the east and west, the canal was also soon flooded with passengers who were eager to settle in western Pennsylvania, or to journey down the Ohio River to lands in the west. Travelers stopped to eat and drink, or stay overnight, at taverns like Lemon House, which was situated at the peak of the Alleghenies and now serves as part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site of the National Park Service.

In the early days, passengers changed back and forth from railroad cars to packet boats. The introduction of sectional packet boats by 1840 made it possible to stay aboard the same accommodations for the entire trip. Passengers boarded the packets Passengers boarded the packets-secured to railcars-in Philadelphia; at Columbia they were lowered into the water and fastened together for the voyage to Hollidaysburg, where they were separated and placed on Allegheny Portage flatcars. Once over the mountains, the boats were reassembled for a second time for the final canal leg into Pittsburgh.

It may have been a technical wonder, but the Main Line of Public Works was also a money pit. It was enormously expensive to maintain the canal beds, which had be repaired after damage by floods, and to ensure the supply of water necessary to keep the channel navigable during dry spells. The canals also froze every winter, closing them down for several months each year. And the system's administration was plagued with graft. Employees of the state transportation system were political appointees. Paymasters regularly held out 10 percent of the workers' wages for "political assessment."
Canal Boats and Rail cars (drawings of) passenger boat on bottom, sectional boat above, sections on railroad flatbeds.
Canal Boats and Rail Cars

The patchwork system never earned back the cost of its construction, but it did unify the state's commerce. Very quickly, however, railroads offered a faster and more efficient alternative. When Pennsylvanians saw the new Pennsylvania Railroad building its line alongside the canal, they realized that railroads were the wave of the future, and began to demand that the state get out of the canal business. When the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1854 began all-rail train service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the trip took only thirteen hours instead of 3-1/2 days.

In May 1855, the state Legislature approved an act to sell the system, but found no takers. In 1857, the Legislature and governor tried again, and this time the PRR emerged as the sole bidder, with an offer of $7.5 million – $2.5 million less than its original price tag. PRR ran the system for three months, and then shut it down, recycling the components that it found useful for railroad purposes. PRR continued to operate disconnected pieces of the canal for more than forty years, but with no through business, it continued to lose money. The railroad shut down the last remaining section, near Harrisburg, in 1901.
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