John Johnstone

The Manayunk Canal
The Locks at Flat Rock Dam circa 1900

The Manayunk Canal

Manayunk's development is greatly attributed to its canal, since it was a stable waterway that provided transportation and water for the town's mills and enabled the shipment of goods within a 108-mile span of navigable waters.

This oldest known print of the Manayunk Canal dates to 1825.

The Schuylkill Navigation Company The Schuylkill Navigation Company was fully incorporated in 1815 to provide safe transportation of goods along the Schuylkill River. At the time, horses pulling carts of goods for long distances on dirt roads did not meet the demands of industry, so the Company began its work in 1817 from Fairmount Dam in Philadelphia (which had already been built as part of Philadelphia's drinking water system). The system would include; 51 miles of canals, 114 locks and a tunnel and 32 dams ranging in height of 3 to 23 feet, overcoming a total fall of 610 feet.

The Manayunk canal was completed in 1819 along with Flat Rock Dam (since Manayunk at the time was called "Flat Rock"). Flat Rock Dam facilitated a difficult section of the river where "Rummell's Falls" was and had previously only been navigable when waters were high. It was that year 1819, when the mills of Manayunk really started being built in large numbers, and immigrants (mostly from England) began operating the mills.

Construction continued until 1825, when the system was complete from Pottsville to Philadelphia. The trip was about 6 days in each direction. For every canal there was a mule path, where mules were attached by rope to the boats and walked them between river locks. The cargoes were otherwise reliant on river current. Even passenger boats were operated between Fairmount and Reading for $2.50 per person. Quarters were crammed, but people seemed to enjoy the trip so long as the bar was well stocked.

One could observe empty beer barrels, pig's heads and oysters as cargo going by barge upstream, and full beer barrels, scrapple and lumber returning downstream. The one product coming downstream, which really made the system profitable was coal. Coal as a fossil fuel was quickly replacing wood and was greatly responsible for the growth of industry throughout the United States. Philadelphia grew rapidly and especially Manayunk, which became the largest industrial area of the United States.

Even with damaging storms and floods, which required major repairs to the system, the Schuylkill Navigation Company turned huge profits. During its prime of 1837, about 1,000,000 tons of coal was transported within the year, until the railroads came along. There was passenger train service between Philadelphia, Manayunk and Norristown in 1835, via the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad, but in 1842, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad completed their freight and passenger railroad between Pottsville and Philadelphia, passing through West Manayunk. The first freight train could carry coal to Philadelphia in 5 hours as opposed to a boat, taking 6 days.

The impact of the railroad was immediate. The canal had to reduce it's toll per ton from $1.68 to $.90 to compete. By 1845, the railroad was hauling 800,000 tons of coal and the canal system fell to 260,000. The Schuylkill Navigation Company could not keep up with costs of repairs from damaging floods and by 1863; the cost per ton to transport was $.25, certainly not enough to keep up with operation and maintenance costs. The railroad by then could carry greater tonnage, make the trip in just over 3 hours and have direct access to Port Richmond in Philadelphia. The railroad even opened a branch along the Manayunk Canal. The canal boats dwindled and the last freight boat to enter the locks to Manayunk was in 1916. The locks remained opened for pleasure craft for a time thereafter.

The Manayunk Canal remains much as it did in 1819, with some of the old mills surrounding it. The mule towpath has become a biking/hiking trail and the waters fairly still with an occasional turtle or catfish stirring about.

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