Erie Extension Canal

The Erie Canal that comes to mind with most people is located in the state of New York. The canal system in New York State still exits today as part of New York’s larger canal system called the New York State Canal System.

Pennsylvania had its own canal system, which extended from Philadelphia to Erie. Within the state's canal system the Erie Extension Canal ran, north to south, near the western edge of the state.

Pennsylvania Canal system

The canal era began in Pennsylvania in 1797 with the Conewago Canal, which carried riverboats around Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River, near York Haven. Spurred by construction of New York’s Erie Canal, between 1817 and 1825, and the competitive advantage it gave New York State in moving people and materials to and from the interior of the continent, Pennsylvanians built hundreds of miles of canals during the early decades of the 19th century. These included two canals built by Pennsylvania stock companies: the Schuylkill Canal, from Philadelphia to Port Carbon; and the Union Canal, from Reading to Middletown. By 1834, the Main Line of Public Works, a system of interlocking canals, railways, and inclined planes, was hauling passengers and freight up to 391 miles between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Though not all in concurrent operation, the total length of the canals built in Pennsylvania eventually reached 1,243 miles.

By 1840 work had been completed not only on the Main Line of Public Works but on many other lines, officially called divisions. The Main Line consisted of the Eastern Division, the Juniata Division, the Western Division; the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad. North–south divisions operated along the Delaware River in the east, the Susquehanna River in the middle of the state, and the Beaver River in the west. A few additions were completed after 1840.

By about 1850 railroads had begun displacing canals as the preferred method of long-distance transportation. In 1852 the Pennsylvania Railroad began offering rail service from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Hastening the displacement of the canal system, Pennsylvania Railroad absorbed the competition into their rail service in 1857 with the purchase of the Main Line Canal from the state. The trend continued, and in 1859 all canals owned by the commonwealth were sold. The Pennsylvania Railroad formed the Pennsylvania Canal Company in 1867 and continued to use canals to haul freight; However, the canal business declined steadily in the last quarter of the century and most Pennsylvania canals no longer functioned after 1900.

Erie Extension Canal: Beaver and Erie Canal

The Beaver and Erie Canal, also known as the Erie Extension Canal, consisted of three sections: the Beaver Division, the Shenango Division, and the Conneaut Division. The canal ran 136 miles, near the western edge of the state, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, through Beaver, Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford, and Erie Counties.

The southern terminus of the canal was the confluence of the Beaver River with the Ohio River in Beaver County, about 20 miles downstream from Pittsburgh; and the northern terminus, in Erie county, ending at the city of Erie. The canal needed a total of 137 locks to overcome a change in elevation of 977 feet.

The construction of the canal was meant to complete a transport network through northwestern Pennsylvania that would connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River; the Main Line of Public Works, a canal which joined Philadelphia to Pittsburgh; and the Erie Canal, which connected Albany, New York, to Lake Erie.

The Beaver Division, begun in 1831, extended 31 miles from Beaver along the Beaver River and the Shenango River to Pulaski. In 1836 work began on the Shenango Division extension of 61 miles from Pulaski to Conneaut Lake. Two years later in 1838 contracts were awarded for the Conneaut Division to Erie, 45 miles further north. Taking over the Conneaut Division from the state in 1843, the Erie Canal Company finished construction in 1844 when the entire length of the three divisions became open to traffic.

Two east-west canals connected to the Beaver and Erie. New Castle, which the Beaver and Erie served, was the eastern terminus of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal, which ran 91 miles west to the Ohio Canal, and the Erie Canal, in Ohio. Another east-west canal, the French Creek Feeder, brought additional water into Conneaut Lake at the same time it provided a transportation corridor; it ran 25 miles from near Meadville, where it connected with the Franklin Line canal of 22 miles, running along French Creek to Franklin. At its southern terminus near Beaver, Beaver and Erie was linked by the Ohio River to Pittsburgh and the principal east-west Pennsylvania transportation system of the time, the Main Line of Public Works.

Bringing new business to communities such as Conneautville, which shipped timber and hay to Pittsburgh, the Beaver and Erie Canal was heavily used in its early years but was hard to maintain. Competition from railroads and the collapse of an aqueduct over Elk Creek in Erie County led to the canal's abandonment.

The Conneaut Division

The push for a canal system in northwestern Pennsylvania was started by Benjamin Franklin who, in the late 1700s, joined a group of Philadelphia businessmen that were pushing for the establishment of a canal system connecting their city with Pittsburgh. Franklin's initiative wouldn't take shape though until 1827, when the Legislature authorized $2 million to tackle the project.

The project begun a heated argument over whether the extension should follow an eastern route along the Allegheny River and French Creek, or a western route along the Beaver and Shenango rivers; also debated was whether the canal should end in Erie or the mouth of Elk Creek. The western route won out on the advice of engineers, as Erie was selected as the canal's terminus — thanks in large part to the efforts of Elijah Babbitt, a state representative from Erie, who rose from his sick bed to work in its favor.

Ground was broken for the final stretch of canal in Erie on July 4, 1838. A celebratory parade was held in the city of Erie that featured Captain Daniel Dobbins leading the procession.

Work on the Erie Extension Canal began from the south and reached Greenville in 1836 before the project ran out of money. When the Legislature refused to allocate more money, businessmen Rufus S. Reed of Erie, and William Fruit of Sharon, stepped in with private funds to see the project through. Reed's primary interest, who had a coal business, was the transport of iron ore off of Lake Erie.

German immigrants, who were paid $8 a month, and three jiggers of whiskey a day, dug a canal that was 60 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The primary challenge was in overcoming an elevation change of about 1,000 feet over the entire 136-mile stretch from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The canal’s elevation was accomplished through the placement of 137 locks, 72 of which sat between Erie and Conneaut Lake. There were 28 locks alone in a two-mile stretch of canal through what is now Platea.

Another challenge involved providing enough water at the proper elevation to feed the canal. Divided between the Lake Erie basin and the Ohio River basin the Erie Extension Canal had to go over a hill at what was called the summit, so extra water had to be pumped into the locks. The solution was to raise Conneaut Lake by about 12 feet to get the water flowing north through the canal. Engineers accomplished this by damming the lake and feeding it with water from French Creek. A 22-mile feeder canal was built that started near Saegertown then crossed through Meadville and continued south crossing over French Creek near Cochranton before it reached Conneaut Lake.

Because Conneaut Lake, fed mainly by springs and small streams, did not have enough water to keep the Beaver and Erie Canal filled at its highest elevation, the feeder canal, the French Creek Feeder as it was called, ran from a dam built for the purpose on the Bemus farm 2 miles north of Meadville. Water from the dam pool, at a higher elevation than the lake, flowed south through Meadville. It crossed French Creek by aqueduct at Shaw’s Landing where locks enabled boats to transfer between the canal and the creek. Beyond the landing the canal turned northwest and flowed into the lake. Engineering on these projects included raising the Conneaut Lake dam by 11 feet and adding another short canal to carry water to a pumping station for the Beaver and Erie. The French Creek Feeder was completed to Meadville in 1828 and reached Conneaut Lake in 1834.

After the Beaver and Erie Canal was abandoned, the dam at Conneaut Lake was lowered. Also abandoned was the French Creek Feeder, though for a while it still flowed through Meadville. The Crawford County Historical Society has preserved a small part of the feeder canal.

Downstream from Meadville, in the town of Franklin, at the confluence of French Creek with the Allegheny River, merchants there concerned that the feeder canal and the main canal would divert business from Franklin persuaded the state to build a system of locks and dams on French Creek below Shaw’s Landing at Meadville. This canal, the Franklin Line, opened in 1833. Although the Franklin Line made it easier for boats to travel between Franklin and Meadville it made it harder for rafts, which depended on river currents and were too big for the locks. Large boats also had trouble with the locks and the creek often lacked sufficient water to carry them. In 1837 high water caused severe damage to the short-lived system, which was allowed to decline.

The Canal

The first boat to travel the Erie Extension Canal was the R.S. Reed, a vessel owned by Rufus Reed, that hauled 26 tons of coal from Sharon and reached Erie on December 5, 1844. The arrival was marked with a cannon salute, parades and huzzahs by the thousands of people who had gathered to witness the event. When the boat arrived in Erie they were going to sell the coal and bring a load of iron ore back, but they couldn't sell the coal because people in Erie, at that time, were heating with wood. They considered dumping the coal into Lake Erie, but they eventually found a buyer at $2 a ton.

Regular travel began in the spring of 1845, opening a faster and more-workable form of transportation. The canal gave travelers a direct north-south route to connect with railroads that largely traveled east and west at the time. A trip from Erie to Pittsburgh that once took days by wagon or horseback, over rough country roads and Indian trails, could now be done in 36 hours by packet boat for $4. The new mode of travel helped boost the region's population and brought in some notable people, they included famed performer Dan Rice who rode the canal into Girard in the 1850s to set up winter quarters for his circus and to used the transportation system to travel south.

Boats that could carry up to 80 tons of goods opened new markets for farmers, loggers, and the makers of goods; and they enabled western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to develop the iron and steel industries. The canal also played an important role in the birth of the local oil industry as it provided a means to ship heavy barrels of oil from the fields of Crawford and Venango counties. The dollar-figure difference between wagons and canalboats (considering that New York’s Erie Canal, from Albany to Buffalo, was established and working) brought the cost of transporting coal down from $100 a ton, to $25 a ton.

Girard was originally established in a location, west of the current borough, but moved to its present spot to encompass a stretch of canal that cut through the heart of today's borough where the railroad tracks sit near Rice Avenue. South of Girard the 28 canal locks gave birth to Lockport, later renamed Platea. Farther south, the small village of Conneautville experienced a wave of prosperity when the canal opened for business, the population grew up into about 1,200 people. There were warehouses along the canal, along with multiple grocery stores, multiple clothing stores, and three grain mills.

The canal’s brief existence also helped grow industrial centers like Erie and Meadville; it played a major role in the development of Girard, Albion, Conneautville, and Conneaut Lake.

Eventually the Railroad was seen to be more efficient. It was cheaper to build and you could lay tracks almost anywhere. It wasn’t depended on the weather to a have an adequate water level, like a canal system, and you could lay tracks way beyond the reach of any canal system.

The official end came in September 1871, when a 500-foot-long aqueduct that carried canalboats 100 feet above the Elk Creek gorge near Girard caved in. Some blamed it on lack of maintenance; while others suspected that people who had interests in the railroad helped it fail.

The canal is remembered today, mostly by 12 roadside historical markers, all dedicated by the state in 1948 that marks various points in Erie and Crawford counties where the canal or its feeder systems were located.

Pennsylvania Canal System, Erie Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Canal System.

Beaver and Conneaut Division, Erie Pennsylvania
Beaver and Conneaut Division.

Remnants of a tributary that flowed from without of the Erie Canal in the Borough of Girard (year unknown)
Remnants of a tributary that flowed from without of the Erie Extension Canal in the Borough of Girard (year unknown)

The Erie Extension Canal south of Albion
The Erie Extension Canal south of Albion, continuing through Lockport (now Platea) where this photgtraph shows the construction of twenty-eight locks located there.