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The Beaver Division Canal

Milestones Vol 29. No. 1

The era of canal building in the United States marked a great forward step in transportation history. Whereas, formerly the traveler wearied himself jolting over the rough and uneven roadway in a crude stage-coach, now he might relax quietly in a comfortable seat on ship-board as the boat was drawn over the canal by the trotting horses on the tow path. In like fashion the manufacturer now no longer need depend on the small, slow wagons of the overland freighter, but could use large canal boats. So the canal era brought cheaper and more rapid transportation which meant much to the factory owner.

Ground was broken for the Beaver division on July 28, 1831, at New Brighton. It was considered such a momentous event in the history of Beaver County, that a great celebration was held in the grove near the foot of Thirteenth Street. Major Robert Darragh was president of the day; M. F. Champlin, chief marshal; and Major B. A. Goll, assistant marshal of the ceremony. All of these men were prominent in the public life of the Beaver Valley. The ground was broken by Revolutionary soldiers amid the firing of cannon and cheers of the assemblage. A dinner followed, and then the main address of the day was delivered by John Dickey. Toasts were given by prominent men of the surrounding counties. Work on the canal commenced the next day and continued uninterruptedly until the division was finished three years later.

An early picture of Dutchman's Lock in New Brighton.

In New Brighton the canal left the river at Fourteenth Street and passed through the town, meeting the main stream at the lock opposite Fourth Street, Beaver Falls. A short stretch of canal with two locks was necessary to pass the upper falls into the 7 mile pool above the Eastvale dam. One of the locks was about opposite 20th Street, Beaver Falls, and the other near the dam. By this step a bad bend in the river was overcome. It also kept the canal from interfering with the Fallston dam across the river that furnished power for manufacturing plants that were along the Beaver River at that time.

Within the borough limits of New Brighton, there were four single and one double lock. The latter was located between Tenth and Eleventh Streets. These were locally named after their respective lock tenders as follows: Fourteenth Street--"Van Lear's" ; Thirteenth Street--"Butt Cut"; Eleventh Street--"Buck" Wood's; Tenth Street-"Blounts"; and Beaver Falls Dam-"Dutchman's or "Gasper Whitesell's."

The ticket office where tolls for the use of the several locks, passenger traffic and local business of the canal was transacted stood on the east side of the waterway almost in the rear of the present Beaver County Trust Building site. Freight for transfer was consigned to Benjamin Bedison & Son, commission merchants, and the Bedison warehouse was between the canal and the river just south of Ninth Street. Ordinary light freight was placed in the Bedison depot, but staves, pig iron, copper and other heavy materials were unloaded at what was known as the bulkhead, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, which was the nearest available place to the railway station at Eighth Street. Nearly all the copper ore used in the early large smelting works at Pittsburgh came from Lake Superior and was transported via the canal through New Brighton.

This picture, taken from Beaver Falls, shows the curve of the canal on the New Brighton side.

When the Ohio river had sufficient water, ladened canal boats went through to Rochester and were taken twice a week by two steamboats, "Storm No. 1" and "Storm No. 2" to the city. Ten to 15 were lashed together and towed at one trip. New Brighton was used as a transfer point only at low water in the Ohio. The local ticket agent over a long period of time was Harry Mills.

Between Sixth and Seventh Streets, on the west side of the canal, a dry-dock was built where canal boats were repaired. Two bridges crossed the canal, one at Ninth Street and another at Sixth Street. The maintenance of these structures seemed to have been a constant problem with the municipal authorities during the life of the canal.

With the opening of the Beaver division on the twenty-eighth of May, 1834, freight and passenger boats were placed in operation to New Castle. The following advertisement appearing in The Pittsburgh Gazette for July 19, 1834, probably best describes the service offered patrons of this line:

Fare reduced

"The Steamboat Beaver has reduced the fare to and from Beaver to $1.00 each way-arrives and departs from the wharf at the usual hours."

New Arrangement

"The Steamboat "Beaver" has formed a connection with the canal packet boat "Alpha" plying on the Beaver River Canal between Beaver and New Castle, by which passengers and freight are carried through from Pittsburgh to New Castle in twelve hours. Leave Pittsburgh at 8 o'clock A. M. and arrive at New Castle the same evening at 8 o'clock P. M.

Fare through $1.62 1/2-distance 56 miles. (Passengers remain at Beaver one hour to dine.) Freight carried through either way at twenty cents per one hundred pounds. A line of stages connected with the packet leaves New Castle for Youngstown, Warren, the Lakes etc. Passengers by the Boat have first seats in the Stages."

The following editorial which appeared in the New Brighton Record for June 10, 1854, under the general head of "Canal Boating" shows the popularity of the Waterway.

"Everybody says so-that the canal packet Ohio---running daily between Brighton and New Castle is the best boat that swims on the raging Ca-nawl and that Captain Hoffman is the most accommodating Commander on the route and we believe every word of it. Try him a voyage. He leaves Brighton every evening---then New Castle every day at 12 o'clock."

Although the Canal was completed as far as New Castle in 1834, the travel over this division was very light. This was partially due to the fact that the canal was not opened for traffic until May while ordinarily it could handle boats as early as March. Two natural causes which always kept the canal part time idle throughout its existence were floods and ice. During the severe winters, traffic was tied up due to the presence of ice on the surface of the waterway, which, because of the shallow depth of the ditch, often reached a thickness of 10 inches. Then the heavy floods, which from time to time swept down the Beaver, kept the traffic idle while the canal was undergoing repairs.

While the horses on the tow-path were the chief means of power for tile boats, propeller craft were tried on the canal at various times. The first boat of this type was the "Monitor," which carried but one propeller and was fitted out in Darragh's Machine Shop at Fallston. It was tried out going up the Canal, but was unable to make any speed. Then about 1865 or 1866, three more boats of the propeller type were built and placed in service between New Brighton and New Castle. These were the "Sea Gull," the "Cairo," and a packet called the "Silver Palace." The big opposition to this type of craft was their tendency to wash away the banks of the canal from the force of their propeller. The "Cairo" and "Sea Gull" were among the last of any boats in use. They transported stone for repairs on Beaver Falls dam from the foot of Twentieth Street, Beaver Falls, in 1868. At this time the Bannon lock was so out of repair they could not get through it. These boats were sold down the Ohio River.

The completion of the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad in 1864 marked the end of the canal. The waterway could not compete with the railroad. The sharp decline in freight during the latter part of the sixties shows the influence of the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad. In March 1870, this company, that is the Canal Company, leased all of its holdings to the Penna. Railroad Co. The Erie Canal Company was declared bankrupt, and its holdings put up for sale. It was sold to the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad Co., who in turn transferred it to the Penna. Railroad Company. The Penna. Railroad Company operated the canal during the season of 1871 after which it was abandoned. All of the works on the Canal, such as locks, toll houses, etc. that were salable were disposed of. Even the stone in some of the locks was sold. In many places the bed of the Canal was fitted up and put to other uses. Today little remains of the canal that went through New Brighton.

The opening of the Beaver division of the Canal started New Brighton on a period of prosperity which continued with slight interruption until the end of the century. The enthusiasm with which this prosperous period opened was increased by the establishment of a branch of the United States Bank in the town. The attendent optimism and the later tragic results have been described elsewhere in this narrative. The reference is made here because the bank helped make the year 1836 the boom year along the canal. Many factories were built along the race at this time. The first building, south of the Quaker Mill, was erected by F. D. Houlette, John Gamel, and James Erwin. Primarily designed for a wagon shop, it was put to many uses. First a woolen mill, under Wm. Hyde and a saw mill operated by Joseph Darling were added on the same lot. Under Thomas Seal and Charles Coale it became a sash factory. Later James Erwin and J. B. White operated a machine shop within its walls and were succeeded by C. R. Tuttle. Finally, it was changed to a planing mill, run by Henry Fetter. In the same year Talbot Townsend built a flouting mill, which shortly burned and later was rebuilt by Alexander and Kelly. Just below the site of this building was found the planing mill of R. H. McPherson and H. McClain, later operated by R. B. McDanel and McClain.

---From History of New Brighton 1838-1938