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Canals Enjoyed Prominent Role in Beaver County

Milestones Vol 27. No. 3

By Scoop Coates

Many years ago in Beaver County, the late Colonel James P. Leaf began to think of a canal. He was a prime mover in the canal business of modern times. Beaver County today still is being peppered with canal projects-pro and con.

Canals enjoyed a huge role in the development of Pennsylvania and Beaver County in the years gone by. Private companies undertook to build and maintain canals between 1790 and 181.6. (Beaver County was erected in 1800).

The state began construction of this type of waterway from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and to Lake Erie back in 1826. More than 600 miles of canals and "feeders" were constructed.
One of the most famous routes of travel in that day was the old canal route from east to west with the portage railroad over the Allegheny mountains. This over-the-hump railway was 37 miles in length,

On March 21, 1831, Governor Wolf signed a bill appropriating $100,000 to build a canal from the mouth of the Beaver River to New Castle. This move brought howls of derision from interests in the eastern part of the state. The gentlemen who received most of the credit for the project were General Samuel Power and Hon. John R. Shannon, then county representatives, and Hon. Moses Sullivan, Butler County, state senator of the Beaver-Butler District.


John Dickey was superintendent of the Beaver Division of this canal. On April 15, 1831, he gave notice that bids would be received up to July 20, 1831 (at sunset,) for construction "Of a canal or slackwater navigation from the mouth of the Big Beaver to New Castle." The contract included dams, locks, bridges, sections, and towing-paths. Some 73 firms and individuals nabbed portions of the contract.

In a beautiful grove opposite Fallston, on July 26, 1831, there was held a great canal celebration -a ground-breaking ceremony marking the start of tile Beaver Section of the Pennsylvania Canal.

Big shots on the program for that day were: Major Robert Darragh, president; M. F. Champlin, chief marshal; and Major B. G. Goll, assistant.

The actual ground-breaking was done by soldiers of the Revolutionary war. These vets were there with plows, shovels, picks, and oxen. There was the firing of cannon and, of course, tumultuous shouting. Among the Revolutionary survivors present were Lieutenant James Moore, Nate Coburn, and Henry Woods.

After the groud-breaking, a big feed was enjoyed in the grove. John Dickey, Esq. was speechmaker of the day. After his speech, toasts were proposed (The toasts were after the custom of that day.) It is recorded that there were 16 regular and 28 voluntary toasts. (Whew!) The last of the voluntary toasts were given by Representatives Sam Power and John Shannon. The old Western Argus reported that: "Mr. Shannon responded to this toast in a neat, concise and comprehensive address, and in most felicitous language."

Actual cost of this waterway was much more than was estimated. In fact it was $500,000 more than the estimate, and the time of completion, too, got away. Some writers say it was more than a year later than estimated; others say "several."


Well, anyway, the old canal served its purpose. It put Beaver County on the map. The canal was sold, and the Harmony Society became owner of the title to the canal bed, the dams and the towpath from the south end of New Brighton to the mouth of the Connoquenessing Creek at Rock Point.

I might mention here that Bausman, noted Beaver County historian, wrote in 1904 that:

"But this means of transportation will yet play an important role in western Pennsylvania, if the future shall bring the fulfillment of the hopes which have been entertained for the building of the Lake Erie and Ohio River ship canal. Some history has already been made in this enterprise. The initial step toward it was taken when the legislature of Pennsylvania in 1889 authorized the appointment of a commission to make a survey for a ship canal to connect the Ohio River with Lake Erie, and appropriated $10,000 for that purpose."

Hartford Brown of Rochester introduced the bill to which Mr. Bausman refers. W. S. Shallenberger was a member of the first commission appointed to report on this project.

From The News Tribune, April 15, 1948