Historic Canals of Pennsylvania

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Background Information on Canal System

Major canal routes were first constructed in Pennsylvania during the early 19th century, fueled by a prominent desire to make the movement of people and goods around the state more efficient. Most of all, the state wanted a canal system that crossed the interior, connecting the eastern and western sides of the state, and a transportation route linking the interior region to the coast. That ability to access interior regions was motivated by the completion of the Erie Canal in the neighboring state of New York. The Erie canal gave New York a major transportation advantage within the region.

In an attempt to match New York's Erie Canal, Pennsylvania began construction of the Pennsylvania Canal. Plans for the canal would ultimately connect Harrisburg, the state captial, to the city of Pittsburgh which had direct access to the Ohio River. However, the Allegheny Plateau proved to be a crucial natural barrier that made it too difficult to build a water transportaton route. The solution was a 37-mile portage railroad, constructed in 1834. On the other side of the state, the Union Canal, built completed in 1828, linked Harrisburg to the Schuylkill River and Philadelphia. With the completetion of the Union Canal and the Portage Railroad, the Pennsylvania "Main Line Canal" linking Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was in operation.

In addition to the Main Line Canal system that crossed the length of Pennsylvania, the privately owned Schuylkill Canal was another key transportation route. The Schuylkill Navigation Company completed the canal in 1825, stretching from northeastern Pennsylvania along the Schuylkill River down to Philadelphia. The canal's main use was for transporting coal from mining operations in the Appalachian Mountains to Philadelphia, where demand was high. Another route from the northeast followed the Lehigh River and Delaware River to Philadelphia.

Use of canals within Pennsylvania began to decline in the second half of the 19th Century. The Main Line Canal was no longer the primary route following the opening of the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line, which also stretched from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Most of the canals owned by the state were sold and/or shutdown by the end of the 19th Century.

Some Key Canal Connections

Origin and Destination Total Length in Miles
Pittsburgh to Harrisburg 286.3
Harrisburg to Philadelphia 119.5
Erie to Pittsburgh 131.7
Harrisburg to Wilkes-Barre 135.2
Wilkes-Barre to Allentown 110
Bethlehem to Philadelphia 76.1

These mileages are approximate.


Map information about cities, watersheds, rivers and waterbodies were received from PASDA.
Canal Information: PA Historical & Museum Commission.
Map and webpage created by: Stephen Repa, Spring 2023.
Modifications by: Dr. Geiger.