The Schuylkill Canal was built between 1816 and 1825 by the Schuylkill Navigation Company, a group of businessmen who sought to make the shallow Schuylkill River navigable. Its primary purpose was to carry anthracite coal from the coal region, at the top of the Schuylkill River, to Philadelphia. It covered a distance of 108 miles, beginning in Port Carbon, running through five counties, and ending at Philadelphia.
The Schuylkill Canal was actually a navigational system that consisted of a series of dams and canals. The dams created a slackwater area for boats in the river, while the canals provided passage around changes in water levels. Boats entered and exited the canals through locks, which raised or lowered the boats to the next level. The boats were pulled by mules, walking on towpaths located along the canals.
The Schuylkill Navigation Company, which operated from 1825-1917, was hugely successful for many years, primarily because the industrial revolution generated a huge demand for coal. In 1833 the company enlarged the canal, added a double line of locks and built bigger boats.
The Schuylkill Navigation Co. reached its financial peak of tonnage in 1859, when1,400 boats traveled up and down the Schuylkill, carrying a total of 1.7 million tons of merchandise. About 1.4 million of that was coal, half of which was destined for New York City.
Despite that, the Schuylkill Navigation Company had been suffering financial instability since the opening of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad in 1842. Floods in 1850, 1862, and 1869 caused tremendous damage, and stopped traffic, sometimes for months at a stretch.
In 1870, the canal was leased to the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, but the expansion of the railroad eventually led to the demise of the canal. Coal silt from washing the coal before shipment made its way into the canal, making it impossible to maintain sufficient depth for navigation. Dam No. 1, in Port Carbon, was closed in 1853, and the section of canal between Schuylkill Haven and Port Clinton was shut down in 1888.
By the end of 1915, only about 30 boats remained in service. A few canal boats continued until as late as 1925, after which time the canal was used recreationally, with motorboats, rowboats and canoes traveling in and below Reading.
In 1949, the bankrupted Schuylkill Navigation Co. deeded all its properties to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The state embarked upon the Schuylkill River Desilting Project. By the early 1900s, waste from the coal operations washed more than 3 million tons of silt annually into the river.
In the 1930s, so much silt had accumulated that the river was no longer navigable, and its value as a water supply was threatened.
The Commonwealth’s desilting project dredged silt from the river and poured it into canal beds and silt basins. This major environmental undertaking vastly improved the river. However, it destroyed the Schuylkill Navigation channel, as many locks and dams were either buried by silt, dismantled, or simply neglected.
Today, all that remains of the original 108-mile canal system is 28 miles of canal, as well as remnants of dams and locks. However, several old Schuylkill Navigation sites have since been restored for their historic importance and value as tourist attractions. Lock 60, photo above, allows canoes and kayaks to "lock through" during summer Open Houses.