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The Old Erie and Pittsburgh Canal
by Thomas Bannon Metheny
Milestones Vol 20 No 4 Winter 1995

This article is one that I received from a friend who belongs to the Wampum (Lawrence County), PA Historical Society. The article was copied from the 175th anniversary book of Wampum, PA ... they will be celebrating 200 years in 1996

I found the article most interesting and especially because he mentions the Freedom Boat Yards and the former Freedom Casket Company. The writer is THOMAS BANNON METHENY His uncle, John Deemer Metheny, worked at the Freedom Boat Yard and Freedom Casket Company. The writer, Thomas Bannon Metheny, at age 23, secured a job as a Brakeman on a railroad in New Castle in March 1881 - the Erie and Pittsburgh Division then taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He worked for 50 years and was pensioned October 1928. That particular railroad 'Put the canal out of existence" he said.

- Eleanor Smelko


On August 29, 1936, at the age of 78, 1 made a voyage on a barge from 19th Street in New Brighton, to the Montgomery Dam. This had brought to mind the wonderful changes that had been made since the days when the old Erie & Pittsburgh canal operated along the Big Beaver River.

I was born at Clinton, Lawrence County, PA, on September 20, 1858, just opposite Rock Point, where the Connoquenessing empties into the Big Beaver River. That stream was unnavigable due to the bed being so rocky that one could scarcely row a skiff across the stream; but at the mouth, this stream is very deep.

The Erie & Pittsburgh canal, which was started in 1836, was not completed until 1840, and was consummated in 1872, after which, it was abandoned and its bed, in some places, occupied by railroad tracks.

There were nine locks between Rochester and Rock Point - the Girard Locks at Rochester, the Blount, "Buck" Woods, Butt Cut (Boyle's Locks) and Van Lears at New Brighton, the Dutchman's Lock (where the present 10th Street Bridge is located), and at Eastvale across from 19th Street, Beaver Falls, was the Bannon's and Farrow's Locks. At Rock Point we find the Rock Point Lock and Dam. From the Dutchman's Lock to Rock Point was called the seven mile level.

The canal was quite small, as indeed, were all canals constructed by New York and Pennsylvania at this period, providing a depth of four feet in the canal prism, with locks so small (90'x 15') that boats of only about 50 to 60 tons could pass through.

In those days speed was not essential. Passengers whojte supper in Rochester were in New Castle in time for breakfast.

On the east side of the canal, just across from Clinton (now called Hoytdale) was a large blast furnace called the Homewood furnace, owned and operated by the Oliphants, who received and shipped their products on the canal, as this was their means of transportation.

Across the river from the Homewood Furnace, owned by the Oliphants, W. L Scott & Company opened a coal mine on the Baker farm (this is where the sand plant is today in New Beaver Boro). At this time they would load the coal in small cars and send them through Baker's Hollow to the canal dock, and the empty cars were pulled back to the mine by horses and mules. Across from the W. L. Scott and Co. mine on the right side of the Big Beaver River we find the Rock Point Locks at Rock Point, which were operated by Philip Seltzer and Son, John, who also operated a ferry from Rock Point from the opposite side of the river. At this point, the Connoquenessing was so deep that the horses or mules that pulled the canal boats had to be taken across this point in flat boats.

In the year 1836, the stone house at Rock Point was built by my grandfather, Moses Metheny, who settled in Wayne Township, Beaver County, now part of Lawrence County, in the year 1800. This stone house was called the "Metheny Inn or Tavern." The stone for this house and locks which stood in front of this tavern along the canal was quarried and cut from large rocks along the Connoquenessing Creek.

The old register books of this tavern show that some of the famous men at the time, like Charles Dickens and Thomas Moore, passed through this lock when the canal was the only means of travel, except wilderness paths or roads. James Fenimore Cooper once stopped at this old tavern and wandered up Connoquenessing Gorge several miles to my grandfather Moses Metheny's old homestead, whose home was near Wurtemburg. Mr. James Fenimore

Cooper was a great lover of nature; and the Connoquenessing in those days, with its bright sparkling water rolling over rocks was an attractive sight.

One black rainy night in 1847, a packet, the Evening star, was slowly approaching the locks at Rock Point on this canal. A young, but husky lad in his teens, who was sleeping below, was summoned on the deck to take his turn as bowman. Still half asleep, he began to uncoil a rope preparatory to paying it out. The rope caught on an obstruction on the end of the deck, the boy gave it a jerk, then another, and another, each time with greater force and more impatience. Suddenly the rope went free and the young bowman tumbled over the edge of the deck into the muddy waters, while the mules drew the boat on behind them. As he sank beneath the water he made an earnest prayer that his life be spared. He held onto the rope when he fell; and to his immence relief, the rope tightened in his hand and soon drew himself hand-over-hand to the deck. It is also said that Mrs. Moses Metheny, my grandmother, made him some warm coffee and made him take a hot bath and put him to bed in the old "Metheny Tavern," so he would not get a cold and get sick. After this experience, he was determined that he did not belong with this kind of work on the canal, so he gave up his job and went back to his widowed mother's home in the forest of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. This boy's name was James A. Garfield, who went to college at the outbreak of the Civil War. He was Commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel of an Ohio regiment and served with great distinction in the Western Armies, rising to the rank of Major General of Volunteers. Garfield passed away on September 18,1881. In the year 1880, he was elected President of the United States and was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker in Washington, D.C., July 2, 1881. 1 have in my possession a picture of the old Metheny Tavern and I can point out the room where James A Garfield slept. The building collapsed in 1936, after standing a century.

In the early summer months of 1850, President Zachary Taylor, was on his way to New Castle, PA In his satin-stock he stepped off the horsedrawn canal boat at the docks of Rock Point and had his dinner with Mrs. Moses Metheny at the old Metheny Tavern. On July 4, 1850, he was seized with a violent fever and died on July 9, 1850.

Rock Point is where I spent my boyhood days - fishing, swimming, and watching the boats go through the locks. The names of the boats I remember are the following: the Eclipse, Juanita, May, Mayflower, Rainbow; also two small steamers: the Monitor and the Merrimac. I spent many a day at this old Metheny Tavern. This tavern became a depot for the Pennsylvania Railroad when Rock Point was one of the finest picnic grounds in America, before the park burned to the ground in 1915.

1 remember seeing a houseboat owned by a man named Adams, who lived in Beaver Falls. He would pull his boat through the locks of Rock Point to get to the upper side of the dam. This man had a lantern on the side of the boat with night lines fastened to the line to a bell next to the boat; if there was any interference on the lines, the bell would ring.

About a quarter a mile, on the opposite side of the river from Rock Point, were two coal docks; one owned by James Pierce and Charles Harmoney, and the other by Wilson, Leo, and Patterson. These mines would load the coal in 3-ton dump cars and run them downgrade through a hollow for about a mile to the canal dock. The empties were also drawn back up the grade by mules or horses. Many a day I rode the mule or horse for 25 cents a day pulling the cars back to the mines.

The coal, which could only be shipped during the summer, was dug during the winter and stored away to be ready when the spring season opened.

On the opposite side of the river, there were coal mines and docks owned by the Spangler's.

In the town of Wampum, there was a blast furnace owned by the Kay family. Across the river from Wampum was a village called Chewton. In and around this vicinity were quite a few coal and ore mines and a lot of limestone. Lots of this raw material went either north or south on the canal because there were no railroads in this section of the country.

About a mile and a half from Chewton, on the right side of the big Beaver River going north, was a little village called Hardscrabble. I don't know how the village got its name, but I believe it was because this was one of the hardest places to pull the boats on account of the swiftness of the river. There was a lock and dam located there operated by a man named. Jackson. just on the opposite side of Hardscrabble was a village called Coontown (now called Newport). The post office was called Irish Ripple.

My uncle, John Deemer Metheny, was a cabinet maker and an undertaker in the early 1860's. The undertaker had to make his own caskets and bury the dead without embalming them as they do today. (He later worked for the Freedom Boat Yards and helped make most of the boats that went from Rochester to Erie. He also worked for the Freedom Casket Works at Freedom and later at New Brighton, PA.)

My mother took me to Coontown when I was a lad of five years old to visit my uncle John. He had a daughter named Mary, who later married Henry E. Cook, former sheriff of Beaver County, and lived in Beaver, PA. Cousin Mary and I would go down to the river and see what we could see. All we saw was the beautiful Beaver River and the canal boats traveling on the canal. One day we were surprised to see a cow swimming across the river from Hardscrabble to Coontown. Afterwards we learned that Rinehart, took it over the river from Hardscrabble in a flat boat. The reason the cow came back was because she wanted to be near her calf, which was born before the sale.

About three miles from Hardscrabble, there is a little village on the right side of the river going north called East Moravia (now called West Pittsburg). There was a lock and dam there, operated by Joseph Osborn, and also a dry dock where many boats of the canal were either repaired or rebuilt. This was the birthplace of the Bannon family. My mother was a Bannon, who had five cousins that owned and operated boats on the canal. Their names were: George who lived in Moravia, Albert who later lived in Rochester, Hamilton who later lived in Beaver Falls, Jerry lived in Moravia, and finally Oliver in Rochester. The name of George's boat was called "The Tuttle." I have been on this boat many a time when it was docked at Rock Point to be loaded up with coal to be taken to the lake points. I can't remember the names of my other cousin's boats. I do remember "The Jack Boyle". This boat was named after the owner Jack Boyle, who resided in New Brighton.

Now back to the canal. East Moravia was settled by David Zeisberger in 1770, a Moravian missionary, who established a settlement of brethren for the evangelization of the Indians. The settlement was called Friedenstadt, or the town of peace. The first settlement had been on the east side of the river, but a more substantial town was built on the west side, not far from the present Moravia. In a open field is a stone marker which related an important event in the history of the country west of the Allegheny Mountains.

It is probable that this was one of the first churches built dedicated to the worship of God. The marker can be seen on the right side going north on Route 18 between Wampum and New Castle. Now we leave Moravia and come to the forks where the Shenango empties into the Big Beaver River. At this point was the junction where the canals met. By following the Beaver River there was a canal to Ashtabula, and following the Shenango River we passed through Mahoningtown, now the seventh ward of New Castle. Then we reached the mouth of the Neshannock Creek; and here we find a cut-off that went up the Neshannock Creek as far as what is now called the New Castle Dry Goods Store (later called Troutman's) and here is where the boats exchanged cargos or passengers and back to the Shenango River. Then we passed through the west side of New Castle. The fare from Rochester to New Castle was $1.621/2, including meals, and it took twelve hours to make the distance. I have a ticket in my possession which was issued in the year 1860 by the New Castle Packet Line, and it was good from New Castle to New Brighton on the canal and good on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad (part of the Pennsylvania System) to the city of Pittsburgh. The fare from New Castle to Erie was $4.50, and this included meals.

In 1798, John C. Steward built the first charcoal furnace in this vicinity. After leaving New Castle we pass through Pulaski, West Middlesex and then to Sharon. In and around this vicinity was a lot of coal and ore. From here to Sharpsville we find the wealthy Pearce family who owned and operated the coal and ore mines and later owned the steel mills in this vicinity. The canal then passed through Clarksville, Shenango and to Greenville, the home of Thiel College, and then through Adamsville, Hartstown, and to the village of Harmonsburg. This was a junction for a cut-off to the town of Meadville. The cut-off passed Evansburg to Shaw's Landing on the French Creek and followed the French Creek to Meadville, home of Allegheny College. At this point the boats exchanged freight and passengers, and the boats would go back down French Creek to Shaw's Landing through Evansburg back to Harmonsburg. The water for this cutoff was furnished by French Creek, situated about three miles from Meadville. From Harmonsburg we passed through Dicksonburg, Springboro, Keepville, Albion, Elk Creek, Girard, and then Erie.

The distance from Rochester to Erie is 136 miles and included 133 locks. The crew consisted of a captain, two steermen, two bowmen, one lock lifter, and a chef and helpers. Of course, they did not have the luxuries that we have today on the present steamers or ocean liners of today. A man that owned a boat on the canal was considered a man of wealth.

This same W. L Scott and Company that owned and operated the coal mine on the Baker Farm went to Girard, PA, built a railroad connecting the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern; this railroad being built between Girard and Homewood. This railroad put the canal out of existence due to the great speed and more tonnage. At the age of 23, 1 secured a job as a brakeman on this railroad at New Castle in March 1881. This was called the Erie & Pittsburgh Division and is now owned by the PA Railroad. In 1886 1 went firing and was promoted to engineer in 1892. After serving nearly 50 years, I was pensioned in October 1928. In the last 45 years I have heard these words: that the government is going to build a canal from the Ohio River to Lake Erie; all we hear is that the ground has been surveyed and staked, but the talk is still going on and no canal has been built as of yet.