The Schuylkill Canal

Welcome to the Unofficial Schuylkill Canal website. Here you'll find information on the navigation system running along the Schuylkill River. Although many sections of the canal remain unfilled (and may be seen along the river), only the Oakes and Manayunk reaches are watered and maintained.

This website concentrates on the Oakes Reach, located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, directly across the river from Phoenixville. This 2.5 mile rural waterway is maintained and improved through the cooperative efforts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Montgomery County, Upper Providence Township and the Schuylkill Canal Association as well as many local organizations and residents.

What's on this page?

Like many projects along the canal, this page is a work-in-progress and will change as we build it.
 

A Brief History of the Schuylkill Navigation

The Waterway

The present canal is a remnant of the system of dams, dam pools and canals built at great human and financial cost in the early 1800s. It was designed to make the Schuylkill River navigable from Philadelphia to the coal regions in the Alleghenies, 100 miles upriver. Of the original 23 hand-dug canals, only this and a section in Manayunk remain.

The navigation system used canals to bypass rocky or shallow areas in the river. Dams, such as Black Rock Dam, were built to create slackwater pools in the river. Barges loaded with freight and passengers were pulled by horses or mules along the towpath on the shore. Upon entering or leaving a canal reach, the boats entered a lock. The double doors at each end of the lock were closed; water was added or removed to raise or lower the boat to the level of the next section of canal. This simple "staircase" allowed canals to be dug along sloping landforms, bypassing un-navigable sections of the river.

This canal was originally named the Oakes Reach, after Thomas Oakes, the Schuylkill Navigation Company's principal engineer. Soon after the section was completed in 1821, Oakes died of the typhoid fever that plagued field crews. Work persevered and the entire navigation system was completed in 1825.

It was an immediate success. For the next 50 years, canal boats brought millions of tons of anthacite downriver, fueling the industrial revolution in every town along the way. Return trips, up river, carried manufactured goods, clothing and building materials.

The late 1800s brought a change of fortune to the Schuylkill Navigation Company as railroads replace water transportation. The Reading Line was built on the Chester County side and the Pennsyslvania line flanked the river in Montgomery County. Both provided freight service unaffected by water level or cold weather.

In 1869, a coal miners' strike, a drought and a devastating flood combined to severely damage the canal system. The company struggled to find the money for repairs. The following year, the Reading Railroad purchased the Navigation System and slowly began filling canals southward from Port Carbon.

The last known revenue boat travelled through the area in 1918. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired the property in 1931, and still owns the land. The state saw no economic value in the navigation system and many of the old canals were drained. Most of the Oakes Reach was spared, although in 1947, the lower mile was filled in to become a silt basin for a river-dredging project.

In the 1950s, the last state caretaker retired, the Locktender's House was boarded up and the area was left to decades of neglect.

The Canal Area

The Oakes Reach stretched from Lock 60 above Quincyville (now Mont Clare) through Jacobs (later Lumberville and now Port Providence) to its junction with the Perkiomen Creek in Oaks.

The area began to grow quickly, supported by the hundreds of passing boats. Firms specializing in canal boat repair and supply were joined by a tavern, general store, church and hotel. Factories provided tin, nails, lime and axes. Lumberville flourished; it was the only stop between Norristown and Pottstown. Upstream, near Lock 60, other business including a sawmill prospered.

Rumor has it that John "The Sundance Kid" Longabough grew up in Quincyville. The name of the community was changed when the railroad came through, naming its local station Montclair after the estate home on the hill.

The publicly-held areas fell into disrepair in the 1950s and became a haven for vandals and trespassers. The canal area was leased from the state at nominal rent by Upper Providence Township. The Schuylkill Canal Advisory Committee was formed at the township's request in 1982; this committee became today's Schuylkill Canal Association.

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The Lock Tender's House at Lock 60

The Locktender's House, built in 1836, was home to the lock operator and his family. It overlooks the site of Lock #60, the upstream portal on the Oakes reach of the canal. This 3-story stone home has one room on each side of the center stairway on each level. The bottom of the 3rd floor windows are just above floor level due to the slanted roof. The house has plank floors, 8-foot ceilings and 2 working fireplaces.

Although repainted through the years, the interior walls still hold the original calcimine (whitewash) finish. The present kitchen was added on in the early 1900s; it is supported on beams taken from the timberwork at Lock 60. The original kitchen is now the dining room, to the right of the front door.

The exterior of the house is stucco over fieldstone. The wet stucco was "dashed" with clean river sand to strengthen the surface. Close scrutiny during repairs revealed several snail and mollusk shells embedded in the finish. During operation of the canal, the house was surrounded by wooden walkways due to the muddy banks and towpath.

The locktender and his family were as self-sufficient as possible. Vegetable, fruit, herb and flower gardens were near the house. The remains of the hand-dug well, outhouse, smokehouse and small barn have been found near the downstream end of the property. Field crops were grown in the area between the canal and the river. All the products made or grown at home could be sold to or bartered with the passing barges.

Last occupied by a locktender in 1952, the house quickly fell into disrepair. The heating system and plumbing were heavily vandalized. The building was eventually boarded up and stood vacant for several years.

The Schuylkill Canal Advisory Board (later the Schylkill Canal Association) set restoration of the home as a high priority in 1982. Aided by Upper Providence Township, critical repairs began immediately. A Community Block Grant from Montgomery County allowed the collapsing porch to be rebuilt. Many other major and minor projects were completed before the building was habitable; simply cleaning the house of debris took several days.

The Locktender's House and the entire canal area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Interior and exterior restoration continues and a herb garden featuring many local varieties has been planted near the drive.

The lockhouse is open to visitors 1 to 4pm on the third Sunday of each month as well as during Canal Day and other special events.

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The Schuylkill Canal Association

Started by concerned residents, the Schuylkill Canal Association evolved from the original canal advisory committee in Upper Providence Township. In 15 years, the group has overseen the cleaning and re-watering of the only remaining reach of the Schuylkill Navigation outside Philadelphia. The area is leased from the Pa. Department of Environmental Resources by the township and is open to all as a recreational area.

The Schuylkill Canal Association has focused on the maintenance and restoration of the area as a prime objective. The extensive canal stonework and 1836 locktender's house demand constant attention and maintenance, usually performed by volunteer labor. The Association is currently seeking funding for restoration of the lockhouse, excavation and reconstruction of the lock mitre-gates at Lock 60 and further stabilization of the waterway.

Each year, over 20,000 people enjoy the recreational potential of the area. Fishing, canoeing, bicycling, picnicking and jogging are all easily accommodated along the canal. The Association serves as a focal point for residents, corporations and governmental bodies to participate in the preservation of this unique resource.

The Schuylkill Canal Association at a Glance


JOIN US!

Please join us in preserving the canal and its environs. New members and friends are always welcomed.

For membership in the Schuylkill Canal Association, please send your name and address with a check for $15 to:

The Schuylkill Canal Association
PO Box 3
Mont Clare, Pa. 19453
  

Links Of Interest

The National Canal Museum and Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pa., is a wonderful site for the canal enthusiast.

The Schuylkill River Greenway Association is a good friend of the river and our association.

Mont Clare Fire Company are local folks doing great things in the community.

The American Canal Society provides excellent canal history and engineering data nation-wide.

Worldwide Canal links provided by Ariël Meeusen in the Netherlands.

Fitzwater Station Restaurant serves up some local history to accompany their extensive menu.


This site is maintained. All material copyright 2000 by the Schuylkill Canal Association. Permission to reprint granted to students and non-profit organizations if source is credited. All other use requires permission.
Last updated on 16 Aug 2000

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