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Work on the Pennsylvania canals was short-lived

By Staff | May 15, 2017

PHOTO PROVIDED William Poulton, director at the Muncy Historical Society, gave a presentation on the history of the West Branch Canal system to members of the East Lycoming Historical Society on Monday, April 17.

HUGHESVILLE – The Pennsylvania Canal system, and the Susquehanna Division of the West Branch, in particular, was of utmost importance to Muncy and the surrounding areas as presented by Bill Poulton of the Muncy Historical Society to members of the East Lycoming Historical Society.

During April’s meeting, Poulton traced the history of the short-lived canal located at Port Penn and one that flourished in the late 1800s before the railroad industry took its place. Poulton said he discovered a lot of information on the topic, “maybe too much for this presentation,” he said. Most of his research came from the Now & Then publication, so he could narrow it down, he explained. “Its rise and fall is a sad commentary,” described Poulton.

In 1690, Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn wanted to build a canal along the Tulpehocken Creek and the Schuykill River, then connect it to the Susquehanna in Swatara. “But it took nearly a century to begin building,” Poulton explained to a well attended audience. Much of central PA was barren, only used for hunting and trapping at the time. Goods had to be transported by horse and buggy.

The first chartered canal appeared in 1791. It was one mile long and built with public funds. By 1830, 42 canals were built and chartered. “There was a sudden rush for economics in commerce,” added Poulton during his power point presentation. “It was an economic necessity, and important for New York commerce too.”

The Muncy line was completed in 1833 to Williamsport and sold for 3 million in 1857 to the Erie Railroad who “secured the right of way at the taxpayers’ expense.” It was completed to Muncy in 1828.

According to Poulton, the commissioners adopted a resolution relative to the feeder dam on July 8, 1833. He found an ad in the Lycoming Gazette seeking employment on the Lycoming Creek Aqueduct. Many of the laborers were German or Irish immigrants who worked by hand. “There have been reports of a bloody riot here in Muncy, but I found little on this,” Poulton said.

The best means of travel here was by packet boat, because it could carry many passengers with cargo. At the time roads were primitive, so traveling passengers preferred the calmness of the canal boats.

By 1854 Washington, Main and Market Streets in Muncy boasted some fine homes built there, and heavy items like plaster, salt, and fish were being transported by canal. “The merchants became wealthy.” Cargo boats would arrive in Muncy once a month and shipped out lots of whiskey, butter and sole leather. “Lumber made up the bulk of the business.”

Looking at old maps, Poulton believes there might have been a dry dock or possibly a boat building facility building canal boats at one time on the old Muncy tow path.

By 1870 there were no longer any scheduled packet boats leaving from Williamsport. In 1889 a flood occurred and washed out all bridges, locks and towpaths for the Lycoming Line. “Tolls became so high, they eventually went to rail,” Poulton explained. “The floods kept canals difficult to stay open.” Over 1400 miles of canals in PA were closed.

The heritage of the canal system is preserved with Muncy’s Heritage Park and nature trail. “You can see lock remains, original stone, and tow path,” said Poulton. Interpretative signs explain the history there and a salvaged packet boat from the 1860s with bow and stern is also on exhibit at the park. “It survived,” said Poulton, “and we call it the John Waldron.” Money was raised to build a pavilion for it and to this day, photographs are taken in front of it for proms, weddings, and reunions at Muncy’s Heritage Park and nature trail located at the far end of Pepper Street near the river.