Canal Days

The physical evidence of the existence of a major American canal running through portions of Indiana and Westmoreland Counties is now almost entirely erased by the ravages of time, weather, and modern industrial development.  However, it is still possible to find short sections of watered canal bed, crumbling culverts which once ducted streams beneath the canal bed, and even portions of ruined locks with some of their beautifully cut stones still in place.  Other sites, which are known to have contained major canal structures, are now only remembered in the pages of old canal company records of preserved in old photographs.

In 1826, it became apparent to Pennsylvanians that a route of commerce must be opened to the west.  The successful completion of the Erie Canal in New York State had already begun to draw commerce away from Philadelphia, and with the proposed construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which it was hoped would link the rich agricultural lands of Ohio with the great port of New York City, the Pennsylvania State Legislature was forced to act.  On February 26, 1826, a bill was passed to promote a system of internal improvements establishing an “uninterrupted waterway” from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was never a truly uninterrupted waterway, but by April 15, 1834, it was possible to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on a canal system combining manmade and natural, land and water sections.  Passengers and freight moved by steam train from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River at Columbia where they were lowered to the canal basis by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  From this point to Hollidaysburg, the canal travelers rode in canal boats pulled by mules, along the Susquehanna River to the Juniata River, and then along the Juniata to Hollidaysburg.  At the Hollidaysburg canal boat basin, the canal boats were floated onto railroad flatcars, and hauled up and over the Allegheny Mountains by means of an inclined plane railroad powered by stationary steam engines.  This series of ten planes was known as the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  It began at Hollidaysburg and ended in the Johnstown canal boats were floated again in the canal, and pulled in canal and slackwater pools[1] following the banks of the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Allegheny Rivers to Pittsburgh.

The completion of this internal improvement in a period of eight years was astounding feat.  Consider first its length: 395.19 miles.  Then ponder the problems of crossing rivers, streams, and mountains before the age of dynamite and gigantic earth movers.  Rivers and streams were crossed by means of troughs of water called aqueducts.  Mountains and steep hills were crossed by using inclined plane railroads powered by stationary steam engines which pulled the canal boats up and over these obstacles.  More gradual increases in land elevation were overcome by means of lift locks which raised or lowered canal boats from eight to twelve feet.  And finally, consider the tremendous effort required to dig a ditch over 250 miles long, five feet deep, forty feet wide at the top and twenty-seven feet wide at the bottom.  Consider also that this was done with only pick and shovel and black powder and mules, and it can be seen what a tremendous feat of engineering and pure physical effort the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal really was.  With this improvement in transportation, it was actually possible in 1841 to depart Philadelphia at 7:30 a.m. and arrive in Pittsburgh at 9:30 a.m. seven days later.

There have been a number of interesting accounts of travel on the Main Line Canal.  Outstanding among these are ones by Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Phillip H. Nicklin.  None of these give much attention specifically to Indiana County, but by drawing on old pictures and photographs, we can build on their accounts and imagine that a traveler writing in his diary in 1841, in the heyday of the canal, might have described his trip through Indiana and Westmoreland counties something like this:

June 25, 1841 After descending out of the Allegheny Mountains by the ingenious devices of the inclined planes of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, we slip into the canal basin in the village of Johnstown, and take rooms for the night at the American Hotel.  At first light we board our Marshall Company packet boat “Pennsylvania,” Captain H. H. Jeffries, at the tiller, and slip out of the basin by way of the guard lock at the west end, and we quickly move into the Conemaugh Gap slackwater.  Here we find ourselves in a deep, mountainous pass, hemmed in on the right and left by its steep walls, covered with a luxurious growth of hardwood. Not a trace of road or trail can be seen so interrupt the green of its sides.  In a short while we are told by Captain Jeffries that we will be passing out of the gap, and into Indiana County.

We leave the smooth slackwater in the gap and enter into the canal at Guard Lock 3.  The rolling hills of Indiana County spread out before us, and we are now pulling in a straight stretch of the canal at about four miles per hour, as we approach Rodger’s Mill and Lock 22 of the Ligonier Line.  Occasionally a cleared piece of farm land breaks the solid carpet of trees, and the Conemaugh flows swift and shallow on our left.  We pass by the villages of Abnerville and Centerville with Locks 20 and 18 at these places.

Just before we pass through Lock 16, our boat pauses near a number of substantial stone buildings associated with the canal company.  Here a fresh team of mules is attached to our tow line.  Without undue delay we are lowered in Lock 16, and glide smoothly over a handsome culvert of beautifully cut stone. In less than a mile’s distance we find ourselves crossing the Conemaugh on a marvelously constructed stone aqueduct supported by five elliptical stone arches.  Just over the far end of the aqueduct we are lowered in Lock 14.  Here we are in the village of Lockport in Westmoreland County.  As we pass through the town the cliffs of the Conemaugh on our right loom above the oxbow of the river and over the cornfields on the flat.  At the western edge of the town we drop in Lock 13, and we pass on through Bolivar, crossing over Tub Mill Creek on a two-arched stone aqueduct.  Ahead of us we can see a deep gap cutting through another ridge.  After going through Locks 12, 11, and 10, the gap looms even larger and more foreboding as we approach it.  Captain Jeffries explains that this is the Chestnut Ridge and that the passage through it is called Packsaddle Gap.  We quickly descend the closely spaced Locks 9, 8, 7, and 6, and find ourselves in the upper end of a slackwater.  It forms a broad expanse as smooth as glass, mirroring the steep and rocky sides of the gap.  Not a sound is heard as we pass below its towering sides, slip through Guard Lock 2 and into a short stretch of canal.  We are pulled through Lock 5 and then into another slackwater pool.  At last we burst forth from the confines of the gap into the rolling valley beyond.  With the sun low in the west, we are pulled out of the slackwater through Guard Lock 1, and again into the canal.  Next we go down Locks 4 through 1, and out through Lock 17 into the Blairsville slackwater at McGee’s Run.  We are now in the Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh section of the canal.

The thriving town of Blairsville now comes into sight through the tres surrounding the slackwater.  Opposite Blairsville we enter the canal again through Guard Lock 5, at the village of Bairdstown.  Because of commerce from the canal and from the Huntingdon-Cambria and Indiana Turnpike, Blairsville has become the largest town in Indiana County.  The warehouses by the shore of the slackwater on the Indiana County side attest to this, and the bustle of activity of men and wagons can be seen across the river in the late afternoon light.

We are now on the Westmoreland County side of the Conemaugh, slipping silently by the rolling hills.  We descend through Locks 16 through 12, and pass the villages of Social Hall and Livermore, and into the slackwater.  On our left, above the tree tops, a large mountain looms.  WE pass through Guard Lock 4, turn sharply left, and plunge directly into the mouth of a tunnel in the side of the mountain.

This tunnel, Captain Jeffries tells us, is cut through the mountain to avoid the additional four miles around it.  Although I must admit to a slight feeling of apprehension as the darkness surrounds us, he says it is a wonder of modern engineering, being 817 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 14 feet high, and cut through solid rock.  Our nighthawker lanterns show up the brickwork on the inside.  As we emerge from the confines of the tunnel, the Conemaugh River is far below us, and we cross this dizzying space by means of an aqueduct.  After crossing the aqueduct we turn sharply left and look back and find it to be much the same as the handsome aqueduct we crossed at Lockport, being supported by five elliptical arches, a magnificent and solid structure.

We are now again on the Indiana County side of the Conemaugh, passing through Locks 11 and 10 and the village of Tunnelview [now Tunnelton].  We pass the saltworks just east of the village of Saltsburg, and descend Lock 9.  As we enter the village of Saltsburg the canal channel makes a graceful curve, and we pass beneath three high bridges.  On our right is the Butler Myers boat building yard.  Captain Jeffries tells us we will make a brief stop here to change mules.  I can see a small crowd of people gathered to watch us go through the lock.

We slip into the chamber of Lock 8, and the gates are closed behind us by the lock keeper.  The tow line is detached as usual, and the tired mules are led away to the stable on our left between the river and the lock.  The fresh mules are brough up, the tow line is attached, and it seems we are ready again to proceed.  But, instead, our boat remains stationary. I wonder why we are waiting.  Maybe I will have a chance to look around a bit.

There are a number of shops and stores on our right near the lock, and I can just read their signs in the late afternoon light.  I can see Alcorn’s and Kelly’s general stores, the S.S. Jamison warehouse, fronting the boat basin below us, and Henry Blank’s bakery.

Suddenly the door of Blank’s bakery swings open, and a most singular man strides energetically out toward our waiting packet.  He speaks briefly to a man in the crowd and pats the head of a little girl as he approaches.  He carries a small valise in one hand and a paper bag under his arm.  In one energetic leap, he is on board, right beside me.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he says, with a sweeping gesture of his arm that seems to encompass everyone in sight.

Then to me he says, as if he had been my friend from childhood, “And now, dear sir, you seem to look a bit weary from your long journey.  I hope you haven’t suffered unduly.”  Without a pause, but with a chuckle, he continues, “And now I am about to offer you the best ginger cookie in the world.”  Inclining his head toward mine, with an air of confidentiality, “Mr. Blank, the baker, makes them, and I just had to have some before we got underway – here, try one,” he says, extending the bag toward me.  I take one from the bag as he continues.

My same is Samuel S. Jamison,” he says, pumping my hand in greeting, “I supervise the canal form Lock 6 to Pittsburgh, and there’s been a problem with leaks in the lock at Leechburg.”

He chuckles again, but without a pause for breath, turns and looks straight at the lock keeper, and calls out in tones of mock gravity, “Mr. Hugh Kelly, you may now let the water out of the lock.”

And so Mr. Kelly does, and with a rush of water, we sink in the lock.

We wave to everyone from the bottom and everyone waves back.  Hugh Kelly opens the lower lock gates and we glide smoothly into the Saltsburg boat basin.  Our tow line slaps the water as we begin to move out into the lengthening shadows of the early evening.

What a delicious ginger cookie! What a delightful man! I turn to thank him, but he is gone into the cabin, talking with some of the other passengers who are beginning to gather around the supper table.

Here is a fine gentleman, I think, and he should go far.  But I suppose I will never know.

Leaving Saltsburg, the Loyalhanna Creek joins the Conemaugh River to become the Kiskiminetas River, and we follow its bank as the town recedes behind us.  Shortly, we cross Black Legs Creek on a wooden aqueduct and pass through Lock 7 just as the sun dips behind the trees.

The captain’s son has come into the cabin to make up the banks, as we will travel all night, arriving in Pittsburgh in the early morning.  Coalport and Locks 6 and 5 are passed in the dark; I can hear the swish of water in the lock and the ropes dragging across the deck.  Leechburg is up ahead, but I shall surely be asleep by then….

Such a trip on the canal would have been possible until about 1863 when the canal was replaced by a swifter, if less romantic, means of transportation, the railroad.  Even before the railroad posed a serious threat, the canal was in financial trouble due to inefficient operation by the state.  But by the late 1840s, so much freight and passenger business was being lost, that the Commonwealth determined to unload its financial burden.  Finally, in 1857, an agreement was reached with the Pennsylvania Railroad and the entire system was sold for $7.5 million.  The railroad, which was primarily interested in the level right-of-way across the state, began to lose the canal section by section.  The first part to cease operations was the portion from Johnstown to Blairsville.  By 1864 the remaining activity halted and the canal days, for Indiana County, were history.


[1] A smooth, calm, and quiet water created by the construction of a dam across a stream and used for navigation purposes instead of a canal channel. A guard lock is located adjacent to a dam in the stream and permits boats to pass from slack-water into the canal or from canal to slack-water.

The Works

“The Conemaugh Saltworks, we are happy to state, are now in the full tide of successful operation . . . rewarding the enterprising individuals who constructed them (and) conferring important advantages upon the district as well as the country.”  So said the Greensburg Register in 1816, just three years after the commercial production of salt began where Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh River join to become the Kiskiminetas.

Salt is so cheap and abundant in our time that we hardly give it a thought, but the fact is, we literally cannot live without it.  When Britain’s blockade choked off imports during the War of 1812, the United States had to rely on just four internal sources of salt: Onandaga/Cayuga Counties in New York, Gallatin County in Illinois, Kanawha in the Cumberland, and – just in time – the new Saltworks right here in Indiana County, PA.  For folks along the Kiski and Conemaugh, the Salt Boom predated the Coal Rush by a quarter century.

But how did it all begin, and who were those “enterprising individuals” responsible for it?

A saline spring rising from beneath the Kiskiminetas near what is now Saltsburg had long been tapped by local Indian tribes, for whom it was a zone of truce; that there was salt in the area was known to Europeans as early as 1755, when Lewis Evans’ General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America noted, “The Kishkeminetas . . . has Coal and Salt.”  In 1766, one Frederick Rohrer of Greensburg may have become the first settler to discover that spring and boil its waters to extract salt.  Or it could be that a certain Mrs. Deemer, who chanced to taste salt water in a Conemaugh pool near White shortly before 1800, was the first.  And Doctor Samuel Talmadge, our county’s first resident physician, is said to have noticed animals licking rocks out in the Conemaugh opposite Broad Fording (Burrell) in 1810.  There he sank a barrel lined with clay to keep salt water and fresh water from mixing, dipped out the saline and boiled it down in iron kettles.

Well, maybe.  Even if each story is true, they’re not mutually exclusive.  What is certain is that commercial production here began in 1813 when, on his second local attempt, William Johnston struck a saltwater aquifer beneath 450 feet of rock while drilling “on the bank of the Conemaugh near the mouth of the Loyalhanna.”  After buying a manual pump, building a furnace and installing evaporation pans, he lined his 2½” diameter drill-hole with copper tube and began producing 30 bushels of salt per day.  The blockade had done wonders for the price of that already-precious commodity, and at $5.00 a bushel, salt soon made Mr. Johnston a wealthy man.

Drilling, pumping and evaporating were no easy tasks in those days.  It took two men up to nine months to drill through 400 to 600 feet of rock with their swing pole drill, a weighted chisel suspended by chain, rope and pulley beneath a wooden tension pole.  A “blind horse” powered the pump that drew the saline from well to furnace.  Four men operated the furnace and deposited the boiled-down residue in twenty-foot “grainers”, or evaporation pans; four others mined coal from the nearby hillside, and one more led a horse hauling coal to feed the furnace.  Pay ranged from .75¢ to $1.00 per twelve-hour day.

[Though defined in none of the surviving records, it is almost certain that the “blind” horses were simply those fitted with blinders, also called blinkers.]

By the time of the Register article there were fourteen furnaces fed by four wells within a mile of the Conemaugh/Loyalhanna confluence, owned respectively by William Johnston, Samuel Reed, Andrew Boggs and the partnership of Boggs & Forward.  Between them they produced over 100 bushels of salt per day, selling at the post-war price of $2.00 per bushel – still a tidy sum.

But the Boom was just getting started.  High demand, the introduction of steam engines and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Canal caused the number of producers and their total output to climb steadily through the 1820s.  Records show ten wells producing 1,750 bushels per day in 1821 and 31 producing 7,600 bushels per day by 1829.  That’s an amazing four million pounds a year!  Both the settling of Saltsburg (laid out by salt magnate Andrew Boggs) and the rise of Blairsville to become the county’s chief city were direct consequences of the flourishing salt industry, and the Conemaugh Saltworks boasted the fourth largest post office in the county.

Boom was nearly followed by bust when overproduction and price wars brought salt down to just .19¢ per bushel in 1826.  As the price of salt fell below the cost of production, well owners announced that they had agreed among themselves never to sell their salt below $2.00 per bushel – legal, in the days before the Sherman Antitrust Act.  It worked, and the Boom continued through the 1830s.

Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t always take kindly to the changes Man’s endeavors impose on the land.  By 1830, proliferation of wells had caused the minimum depth at which adequate concentrations of saline could be struck to drop more than 200 feet, and many a producer went out of business when his well failed.  Exacerbated by poor engineering decisions made in construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, the river flooded disastrously in 1828 and 1832, bankrupting Andrew Boggs and several others.  The Boom continued even so, reaching its peak between 1838 and 1840.

But it was history that finally closed the book on the salt industry of Indiana County.  Westward expansion of the United States brought the discovery of mineable salt in Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana.  These sources were easier and cheaper to exploit, and were more productive than our saltwater aquifers.  Steady decline after 1840, relieved only briefly when the Civil War cut off access to southern mines, left just two producers by 1870.

Yet despite its brevity, the Salt Boom’s long-term effect on our county’s economy was broad and positive.  Our coal-mining industry owes its start to salt:  the Works were the single greatest consumer of coal in southwest Pennsylvania before the 1840s, increasing local production by more than three thousand percent between 1814 and 1838.  It drove demand for iron and wood products, attracted immigration from pre-famine Ireland and was one of the main reasons for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s road and canal systems.  You might say that salt gave Indiana County . . . well, “the Works”!