The Pennsylvania Canal

The Allegheny Aqueduct of the Pennsylvania Canal
where the canal boats entered Pittsburgh.
The Allegheny Aqueduct, shown here circa 1846, crossed the Allegheny River into the city of Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania Canal was built during a period of rapid expansion in the country's transportation system. The Western section, from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, was completed in 1830. The Juniata section was finished in 1832, and the Philadelphia section in 1834.

The line was 395 miles long and cost $25,000,000 to complete, paid entirely by the State of Pennsylvania. The scenic river route was never a profitable venture and was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857. It was abandoned in 1860.

Weigh-lock in Johnstown, PA (left) and a scene along the Pennsylvania Canal. In many locations
horses were used to pull boats along the canal, walking on paths that ran along the bank.

To reach Pittsburgh, the canal was carried over the Allegheny River along an 1134-foot aqueduct entering the city near the present day Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge. Built in 1844/1845 at a cost of $62,000, it was designed by John A. Roebling and replaced a covered wooden span that had stood for fifteen years. It had a waterway fifteen feet wide and 8.5 feet deep. The aqueduct opened just one month after the Great Fire of 1845.

Despite its name, the Pennsylvania Canal was not entirely a canal. Long stretches were covered by the Portage Railroad, and in the mountains the canal boats were lifted up the hills by inclines, then pulled by horses until the next hill.

Despite the interruptions and difficulties in the mountainous stages, the canal was, at the time, a very convenient and pleasant way to make the trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back. What was once a 21-day one-way trip was reduced to less than four days.

A pamphlet advertising the Pennsylvania Canal.

Railroads were still in their infancy. The waterways were the main routes for commerce and passenger travel. With the abundance of rivers throughout the Commonwealth, the canal system was the logical choice for an interstate transportation system. The Pennsylvania Canal was an engineering marvel of it's time. Soon, the Pennsylvania Railroad, with it's steam-powered locomotives, would shorten the trip between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to less than one day.

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"The Pennsylvania Route of 1836"

Division No. 1 - The Columbia Railroad (a horse car road), extending from Fairmount water works in Philadelphia to Columbia, a distance of 82 miles. The horses were later replaced by locomotives.

Division No. 2 - The Central Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, extending along the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers from Columbia to Hollidaysburg, 172 miles. The lockage in this division was 747 feet. There were 18 dams, 33 aqueducts and 101 locks. The canal was forty feet wide at the top, twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom, and four feet deep.

Division No. 3 - Allegheny Portage Railroad, from Hollidaysburg to Johnstown, crossing the crest of the Allegheny Mountains and having a total length of thirty-seven miles. The crossing of the mountains was accomplished by the use of four miles of inclines, consisting of a series of ten separately operated grades, varying in length from 1607 to 3117 feet. Each grade, or plane, was provided at its head with a stationary engine which operated a cable to which were attached the railway cars. On descending grades the cars were gravity propelled and, on level or nearly level grades, first horses, and later locomotives, were used. The ascent from Hollidaysburg to the Summit was 1,398.71 feet in 10.10 miles. The descent to Johnstown was 1751.58 feet in 26-1/2 miles. This stretch of tracks was subsequently relocated and all but one or two of the inclined planes bypassed.

The Pennsylvania Canal and one of the many inclines
that brought the boats up and down the hills
One of the many inclines of the Portage Railroad that lifted canal boats over the hills.

Division No. 4 - The Western Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, extending from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, a distance of 104 miles. The lockage over this portion was 471 feet. To carry this section there were built sixty-four locks, ten dams, two tunnels, sixteen aqueducts, sixty-four culverts, and 152 bridges.

Within Pittsburgh, the canal followed closely the right-of-way now used by the Conemaugh Division (West Penn) of the Pennsylvania Railroad, crossing the Allegheny River at 11th Street by means of an aqueduct. It extended across Penn Avenue, supported by a stone arch bridge, and came to an end in a small basin at Second Avenue. Basins were provided east and west of 11th Street and north of Liberty Avenue, and a larger basin at about the location of present day Grant Street.

A map of the Pennsylvania Canal waterway
from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh
The route of the Pennsylvania Canal. Click on image for a larger map.

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Pennsylvania Canal Links

<Pennsylvania Canal Society>

<Wikipedia - Pennsylvania Canal>

<State of Pennsylvania - Pennsylvania Canal>

Scenes along the Pennsylvania Canal, which linked Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and points across the state, from 1830 until its abandonment in 1860. Many points along the canal are still in existence, and registered as historic sites.

<Historical Facts> <> <Brookline History>