The Schuylkill and Transportation
- The Fords:
Fords at various locations were important to early travellers, as bridges were
not easily constructed across the river or its' tributaries. (The first bridge to be
built across the Perkiomen, for example, was not constructed until 1801.) Here are
some early fords and the name of the present day towns that they were near.
- Finchner's Ford (Schuylkill Haven)
- Kern's Ford (Hamburg)
- Reading Ford (Reading)
- Royer's Ford (Royersford/Spring City)
- Parker's Ford (Parkerford)
- Gordon's Ford (Phoenixville)
- Fatland Ford (Audubon)
- Swede's Ford (Norristown)
- Hagy's Ford (Manayunk)
- Levering's Ford (Manayunk)
Some of the earliest and most innovative of American bridge building occured on
the Schuylkill. The very early bridges, built around the time of the Revolution, were
temporary pontoon bridges. These were followed by a series of permanent bridges
after 1800.Here are some examples, working upstream from Philadelphia:
- The permanent bridge at Market Street (1800)
- The Colossos of Fairmount - the longest span in the world (340 feet)
- Ellet's Suspension Bridge at Fairmount Dam (1842)
- White and Hazzard's wire-rope footbridge at the Falls
- The Girard Avenue Bridge, which in its time was the widest bridge
in the world
- The Reading Bridge, designed by Lewis Wernwag, who also designed the
- Stoudt's Ferry Bridge, 264 feet long, in its' time the longest wooden bridge in
the world, and regarded as the finest example of a wooden bridge in America
- Early River Travel:
The earliest form of travel associated with the river itself was boating. Here are
some examples of the vessels that travelled the Schuylkill:
- Canoes - The Lenapes used dugout canoes to migrate up the river seasonally in
pursuit of the shad, a tasty fish which was one of the staples of their diet.
(European settlers were amazed at the abundance of the shad in colonial times,
and claimed that the fish appeared to be so plentiful that a person could walk
across the river on the backs of the fish.) Early river travel by canoe also
supported the fur trade, with both natives and Europeans using the relatively
light vessels for this purpose.
- Rafts - Later in the river's history came the great period of tree harvesting in
the upper reaches of the valley. These were cut and then lashed together to
form a raft and shipped downstream for milling. The rafts served double duty,
as other goods were transported downstream on top of the logs.
- "Reading Boats" - large barge-like boats of up to 60 feet in length, able to haul
up to 12 tons of goods.
- The Schuylkill Navigation - the Canal:
As early as 1761 the Pennsylvania Legislature was exploring ways to enhance the
navigability of the Schuylkill. The project was delayed by the Revolution, but
excavation of a series of canals was underway by 1794. This first effort met with
failure, but was followed by incorporation of the Schuylkill Navagation Company in
1815. The design called for a thoroughfare of 110 miles, from Philadelphia to the
modern town of Port Carbon. About half of the length was to be by canal, and the
other half on the river itself, although the river was to be made more navigable by
the construction of a series of "slackwater" dams. The canal would include several
aqueducts to carry it over tributaries of the Schuylkill, 72 locks on the canal, as
well as a canal tunnel through the mountain near Auburn. The canal tunnel was
the only one in the
world. Construction was completed by 1828, and the Navagation continued until
1919, although traffic was minimal after the Civil War era. Silting of the river and
competition from the railroads drove the Navagation out of business.
Of course there were many other canals being built around the same time as the
Navigation was under construction. One of the most famous is the Erie Canal. Perhaps you could do some research to find out if there were any canals near where you live.
By the mid-1800's railroads were being extended throughout the region. They often
followed the same routes as the rivers and Indian paths and Canals - all of them
followed the physical lay of the land. By
1844 the Reading and Philadelphia Railroad had reached Mount Carbon. Within only a
few years the rails were hauling more goods than the canals, and the trend continued
through the century.
Adapted from : Nolan, J. Bennet. The Schuylkill.
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