Down the eastern seaboard of the United States the
Appalachians present a barrier to commercial transportation. Through
this mountain wall the state of New York has a convenient passage
in the Mohawk Valley. Pennsylvania, however, has no such gateway
to the western part of the State, and beyond. Even the Juniata
which penetrates far into the interior, is brought up short by
the huge, unbroken mass of Allegheny Mountain.
In colonial days, to overcome the Appalachian barrier, traders
drove trains of pack horses (each carrying a load of some two hundred
pounds) up and down the mountain ridges; but the cost of transporting
goods over such heights, even after the Indian trails which the
pack trains followed had been widened to accommodate wagons, was
prohibitive of commerce on any extended scale.
Nature herself, however, had provided a partial solution to the
problem she had thus created. Great rivers, the Delaware, Susquehanna,
and Allegheny, pierced the mountains, range after range (except
for the Allegheny Mountain), by way of gorges known locally as "water
gaps"; and in the valleys between these ranges flowed countless
From the earliest days of the Province of Pennsylvania, plans
were studied for encouraging trade by means of waterways. William
Penn, the Founder, as early as 1690 dreamed of connecting Delaware
River traffic with the Susquehanna River. His thought was to build
a canal to follow the upstream course of Tulpehocken Creek from
its mouth on the Schuylkill River and the downstream course of the
Swatara to its mouth on the Susquehanna. Such a canal would bind
the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna rivers into one great
system of transportation.
A century was to pass, however, before Pennsylvania had its first
artificial waterway. In 1797 the Conewago Canal, built on the west
bank of the Susquehanna below York Haven to enable boats to avoid
the rocks and rapids of the Conewago Falls, was declared operable
by the state. Its purpose was to link river traffic safely with
Columbia and with the turnpike which ran from that town to Philadelphia.
The great spur to Pennsylvania canal building came from the example
of the Erie Canal three decades later. As that New York state project
went forward between 1817 and 1825, Pennsylvania stock companies
improved navigation on the Schuylkill; and the Union Canal Company
carried into final effect, in 1828, Penn's idea of joining the Schuylkill
with the Susquehanna by a canal along Tulpehocken and Swatara Creeks,
thus connecting Middletown with Philadelphia by water.