Before Trains: The Pennsylvania Canals

Long before the first train tracks began their trek across the great state of Pennsylvania and long before any kind of organized travel existed, many of the first European settlers in “Penn’s Colony” utilized preexisting Indigenous Nations’ trails to get them from one end of the territory to the other.

The Early Paths

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One such fascinating example of this comes out of Pittsburgh itself by way of Pittsburgh’s own “Indian Trail Steps” that were built in 1909. The route, already dubbed “treacherous” by all who used it, was made a little safer by the steps at the turn of the century. For centuries before that, local tribes climbed the step slope from the river’s shorelines to what we now know as Mount Washington. 

The wooden stairway wound its way from Carson Street to Grandview Avenue, and the hillside looked completely different than what it does now. The Duquesne Incline came soon after, but I do believe I am getting ahead of myself at this point. The steps proved difficult to maintain, and were dismantled in 1935 – a mere twenty-six years from start to finish. 

Again, I digress. Let’s get back to the matter at hand. 

Early Train Travel

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Trains. In 1846, the Pennsylvania Railroad system was founded in Philadelphia and quickly became the most used system on the eastern seaboard. Other railroading companies, many much smaller than the PRR, soon popped up all over Pennsylvania. The 1900s are often seen as the “Golden Era” of train transit. Many small towns that were once hard to access were suddenly able to bring in people and goods and mail faster than ever before.  

But how did people and goods get from one end of the state to the other before the first tracks were laid? It’s here we begin our deep dive into the Pennsylvania canal system. 

The Pennsylvania Canal System 

While the title of this next section is also synonymous with the name of a company itself, it’s often used when describing the system in its entirety. Unfortunately, very few pieces of any canal system built in Pennsylvania still remain, as near the end of their time they were often destroyed by flooding or dismantling. According to the Pennsylvania State Archives, “The Pennsylvania Canal, a mostly forgotten piece of history, was at one time a significant component of the Commonwealth’s economy and an essential mode of transportation throughout the interior of the State.” 

Just as there was a “space race” in the 1960s to see who could blast off to the moon first, so there was a “canal race” between Pennsylvania and New York to see who could attract more merchants to their respective states first. The thought was that if they could connect their state to more western territories, then that would mean a lot of wealth and prosperity for the canal owners. However, canals often ended in places where building them just wasn’t feasible be it lack of manpower, lack of funds, and Mother Nature in the form of, well, a giant mountain.

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Many canal builders still saw an opportunity for expansion in conjunction with the new up-and-coming railroads. “ in elevation by erecting the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which used a system of five inclines and five planes on each side of the Eastern Continental Divide at Cresson Pass in Cambria County to actually haul wheeled flat cars, which had halved canal boats placed on them, up and over the Allegheny Front and connect Pittsburgh to the Susquehanna. When finished in 1834 the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh could be made in 3–5 days, weather conditions depending.” This transportation method was also implemented in Johnstown due to the town’s geographical challenges. The same was true for the route from Philadelphia to Columbia and from Honesdale to Carbondale. 

Branches off the main canal line were called “Divisions,” and over ten of them existed throughout the state. They were the Conneaut Division, the Shenango Division, the Beaver Division, the Western Division, the Juniata Division, the West Branch Division, the Eastern Division, the Susquehanna Division, and the North Branch Division. Others, called “Navigations,” were named Monongahela, Conestoga, Bald Eagle & Spring Creek.  

There were also more than just the Pennsylvania Canal itself, often times named after the individual who funded its build or the area they serviced. This list, taken from Wikipedia’s page on today’s subject matter, is a fantastic resource for those who may be interested in finding what may remain of the privately built canals:

We could go down into that “research rabbit hole” and explore every company on that list, but I don’t think my average reader would really be interested in something like that. Perhaps it could serve as a cool Blogtober project? Hmmm… Well, regardless, I left the links on there just in case you wanted to explore the history a little bit more when it comes to who was behind which system. In fact, several parts of the canal system have been historically preserved and are open to those who like to explore this untaught history of Pennsylvania travel. 

Way back in 2019 my family and I spent a weekend in Johnstown for my birthday. We rented an Airbnb, toured around to the more scenic places of the old mining town, and enjoyed some quiet family time seeing who could win the most Scrabble games in one weekend. (We just may be a little bit lame in our “old age”)! One thing we didn’t get to do – one thing I’d really like to do – is visit the Allegheny Portage Railroad. It’s touted as the “first railroad constructed through the Allegheny Mountains in Central Pennsylvania, […] and the system was primarily used as a portage railway, hauling river boats and barges over the divide between the Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers.” Sadly, the park was closed and we were unable to visit any of the exhibit buildings or other historic sites along the line.  

The more I read about that section of Pennsylvania, the more I want to visit. It’s definitely on my bucket list! Of all the museums one state could have List of museums in Pennsylvania – Wikipedia , I want to visit the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site the most. 

I’ve often wondered what Pennsylvania would look like had the canal system stuck around. However, I also can’t imagine just how much money it could actually cost to keep that kind of transit operational. “By the end of the nineteenth century canals had been mostly displaced by the railroads. Many of them were bought out by railroad companies and fell into disrepair. As they expanded, the cost of maintaining both the rail lines and the canals became far too great. Millions of dollars were spent on maintenance for the lift-locks, aqueducts, feeders, dams, bridges, and workmen’s wages. The beginning of the end for the canals came with the widespread use and increased manufacturing of steam locomotives beginning in the late 1830s”

From Trails to Canals, From Trains to Turnpikes

Now Pennsylvania has a different problem: crumbling bridges and roadways. If you overlay a map of PA’s current infrastructure with that of the canals, I think you’ll be able to see that many of today’s roads follow the same routes their predecessors took over a century earlier. Just as we can ride many trains and trolleys of the past due to the hard work and dedication of those who restored them, I hope to, one day, experience what travel may have been like using a canal. Or even the train/canal combo. Reviving that system in some way would be a fantastic teaching tool for future generations.  

Pennsylvania was more than carriages, city steps and the first American cars in its Victorian era. Many saw the canal system as its own form of “Manifest Destiny,” and reveled in its growth. As with many things in the Commonwealth, the canals lived hard and died fast. The railroads took over from the 1830s until the 1960s when the Pennsylvania Railroad conceded to bankruptcy. And finally, Pennsylvania saw the rise of highways and the interstate system under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

What does the future of Pennsylvania travel look like from here? Well, I’m not sure, but I can tell you that I’m most definitely not ready for hover cars!