When Pennsylvania began to attract settlers from Europe, most lived in the southeastern corner, now Philadelphia. As these settlers moved west across the state, first, they traveled by canoe or horseback, later with wagons. They eventually had to travel over a high mountain chain, the Allegheny Mountains. Getting over that mountain wasn’t easy. Most of you have seen on television the trouble of traveling over the Rockies by covered wagon. Did you realize that in the beginning the same trouble happened in the Allegheny Mountains but in a lesser degree?
In the early 1800s, a new way to transport people and goods became popular, the canal boat. Canals were hand-dug channels filled with water for the boats. Mules or horse walking on a path beside the canal pulled these boats.
The southern part of the state, specifically, York County, first used a canal in 1797 for transporting goods. The large Erie Canal in New York state appeared on the transportation scene in 1817. After that, canals began to appear in Pennsylvania from one end to the other. One problem with this source of transportation was a mountain. Canals worked well on flat ground. How do you get a canal boat up a mountain?
First, ingenious men found a way to get the supplies from the canal boats over the Allegheny Mountains. The device called the Portage Canal revolutionized the canal boat industry. The newly improved steam engine, only just becoming possible for moving boats and not yet able to move a locomotive up a hill, became a means for pulling cargo up a hill.
What they did was place a steam engine at the top of the steep grade. A heavy rope passed through a large pulley that ran with the help of the engine. One end of the rope pulled up one car on a track while the other end let down a car on another track. That way gravity and the steam power worked together. Canal boats brought their loads to the bottom of the hill. The contents had to be unloaded into the Portage Canal car, pulled to the top of the hill, unloaded into wagons that took the shipment over a lesser grade to the next portage canal that lifted it again. When the transport got to the top of the mountain, the goods went down the other side the same way.
Later, men found a way to get the boats themselves over the mountains. They made sectional canal boats that could be taken apart, put on the Portage cars, carried over the mountain, and put together on the other side.
Western Pennsylvania has preserved this bit of history at the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site in Gallitzin. They have rebuilt one of the engine rooms at the top of some remaining track to show visitors how this process once worked. A nearby museum contains drawings, photos, and models of the canal boat operation. Following are some pictures I took at this site.
|Reproduction of an Engine House|
|Inside the Engine House|
|Model of a Sectional Canal Boat on a Portage Canal Car|