A Canal Ran Through It
Erie’s canal to Pittsburgh was a link to a canal system that included the Welland Canal (1829), Erie Canal (1825) and Pennsylvania Mainline (Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, 1833). This system was designed to connect the Atlantic Ocean, Great Lakes and Ohio River.
The canal was completed in three stages, and each line was independently owned. They included the Beaver Line (Allegheny River to New Castle), Shenango Line (New Castle to Conneaut) and the Conneaut Line (Conneaut to Erie). Crews of laborers literally dug a canal from the foot of Sassafras Street to the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. The canal connected native waterways and used locks to lift packet boats up and over the Appalachian Escarpment.
None of the early canals were designed for self-propelled ships. Like the Welland and Erie Canals, the Erie Extension Canal used packet boats. The common size of a canal packet was forty feet with a carrying capacity of sixty-five tons. Canal right of ways always included tow paths from which horses, mules or oxen were used to propel the packets. A helmsman stood at the stern of the boat as it was towed and controlled its motion with a large rudder.
The Erie Extension Canal used aqueducts to cross existing natural streams. Both Walnut and Elk Creeks presented obstacles west of Erie. The aqueducts that crossed these waterways were major engineering innovations for their times, measuring 105 and 96 feet above creek level, respectively. The twin aqueducts included 50 foot waterways as well as tow paths.
From 1844 to 1871, the canal helped contributed to Erie’s maritime economy. For the first time ever, passengers and goods could be transported from Erie to Pittsburgh in 36 hours! And canal access insured financial wealth for towns and property owners in exactly the same way as modern thruway interchange locations.
Remnants of the old canal route are still visible. A significant dip in West 6th Street between Chestnut and Myrtle (look for the manhole covers) clearly marks the old canal path. On Erie’s west side, Tow Road (shortened from the historic Tow Path Road) still runs parallel to West Lake Road. Portions of the old canal remain near Girard and Albion, and there is a canal museum with a lock and packet boat at Greenville, PA.