ShareThis Page

Canal industry imbedded in Saltsburg history

Jeff Himler
| Saturday, May 12, 2012, 12:33 p.m.

SALTSBURG--Pennsylvania's mid-19th century Main Line Canal left its mark on this southern Indiana County community in more ways than one.

The canal bed, which once carried an average of 191 passengers per day, on their way between Pittsburgh and places to the east, is now gone save for a park which retraces and commemorates the man-made water route.

Yet, a hint of the booming prosperity the canal brought to the town--including enterprises related to construction and operation of canal boats--has been preserved by the work of modern historians.

Though nothing now remains of either facility, period reports cited in volumes by historians Clarence Stephenson and George Johnson mention two boatyards in Saltsburg which turned out the specialized vessels used to carry passengers and cargo along the canal.

In 1835-36, Butler Myers launched a Saltsburg boatyard in partnership with Robert Young and Jacob Newhouse. They leased their yard on a triangular parcel of property bounded by the canal bed on the west and Market Street on the north.

On the 1871 F.W. Beers map of "Saltsburgh" (sic), the boatyard appeared as a vacant lot owned by J. Andre. Andre operated a cabinet shop on the opposite bank of the canal.

Stephenson places the boat-building business in the same area as the Davis Brothers Lumber Yard, which was in operation in 1913.

Johnson noted the location allowed the boatyard's partners to divert vessels in need of repair from the canal bed directly into their workshop. Likewise, mended or newly constructed boats could be readily released into the waterway.

Stephenson indicated the Myers boatyard was known for turning out "some of the finest and most symmetrical heavy freight boats on the canal...."

Most canal boats were about 80 feet in length and no more than 14 feet wide, according to Bill Dzombak of Latrobe, a canal enthusiast who has worked on the Pennsylvania Canal Society's quarterly historical journal, Canal Currents.

That width allowed six inches of clearance on each side when the vessel entered one of the canal's locks.

While freight boats "lumbered along at about 2 1/2 miles per hour," Dzombak added that the passenger boats, or packets, tended to be narrower--which allowed them to travel at a slightly faster speed.

He noted 4 mph was the maximum speed permitted on the canal. Anything faster would create a wake that would erode the banks of the waterway.

Dzombak explained the packet boat owed its name to the steamboats which plied America's navigable rivers, running on regular schedules.

Initially, he said, before America won its independence, the name was applied to boats which carried "packets" of state documents from England to its colonies.

According to Stephenson, most packet, or passenger, boats were about 11 feet wide and cost about 250 English pounds to construct.

According to Johnson, local tax records show the Myers boatyard was in operation through 1862, just before the canal was replaced by the next phase of transportation: the railroad.

Records also indicate the Myers boat-making concern passed into the hands of a Philip Mechling from 1844 to 1846.

Just south of the Butler Myers facility, Johnson noted, a second boatyard was operated on two adjacent lots by Jacob Weister. Tax records indicate that enterprise lasted from 1845 to 1851.

Interest in the canal boat industry tended to run in families.

According to Johnson, Butler Myers' brother, George W., worked as a boat builder, from 1848 to 1853, and as an agent in 1856. George Myers wed Mary McWilliams, daughter of a fellow boat builder, Robert McWilliams Sr.

In addition to Butler Myers' partner, Jacob, two other members of the Newhouse clan were involved in canal trades. Listed on the tax rolls in 1856, James Newhouse also was a boat builder. Solomon Newhouse probably worked at the Myers yard.

Indiana County tax records indicate there were at least 134 residents of Saltsburg and Conemaugh Township em-ployed in canal-related fields between 1838 and 1864.

However, Johnson noted many of the workers had to hold down other jobs as well, to get them through the winter months when the canal was iced over and service was suspended.

Canal-related occupations included: boat captain, boatman, boat builder, booking agent, canal maintenance man, lock keeper and those who stabled the horses and mules used to tow canal boats.

William Fulton, who also captained a boat, reportedly kept 20 mules on the east bank of the canal, north from Washington Street.

At one time, there were said to have been 121 boats plying the western division of the canal between Pittsburgh and Johnstown--a distance of 105 miles, including 68 locks.

Those vessels provided direct jobs to as many as 900 crew members.

Wages ranged from $60 per month for a captain to between $5 and $10 for a mule or horse driver--a position often handled by a boy.

According to Johnson, Hail Clark drove a canal boat mule team in 1841, when he was just 13 years old. He later switched to another transportation industry and became a fixture of Saltsburg's merchant community, constructing light carriages and buggies.

Men who were prominent in Saltsburg's dominant canal industry also were likely to play a leading role in local political and social circles.

Young, co-founder of the Butler Myers boatyard, also served stints as the town's postmaster and chief burgess.

Andrew Getty entered the canal business at age 20 and apparently became wealthy as a result, Johnson said. Getty later became a Universalist minister well known throughout the region.

Two of Saltburg's leading canal entrepreneurs were Samuel Shryock Jamison and John M. Marshall.

Jamison moved to Saltsburg in 1826 after he obtained a contract for constructing a local portion of the Main Line canal's Western Division.

Three years later, he was appointed supervisor of the canal from "Tarr's Lock," just west of Saltsburg, to Pittsburgh.

He also served as a state senator and was a contractor for several area building projects, as well as the later railroad line.

Marshall was the owner of the canal packet boat, "Pennsylvania," which he sometimes piloted from its home port in Saltsburg.

Following a round-trip schedule between Blairsville and Pittsburgh, the packet was intended to arrive in Saltsburg at noon, in time to meet passengers arriving on a hack service Marshall ran from Indiana.

The Pennsylvania was sold to James R. Porter of Saltsburg in 1851 and was renamed "Indiana."

Dzombak notes a state law required that each canal boat have a name, which had to be displayed on its stern.

In conjunction with his hack, Marshall operated the Marshall House hotel on Washington Street.

He also served on Saltsburg council and took over responsibility for maintaining borough-owned bridges crossing the canal at Washington and Point streets.

Another local provider of canal transportation was Graff's Union Line in Blairsville. Several Saltsburg residents captained boats for Graff, including George S. Elrick and Henry Earhart, who was captain of "Jupiter No. 1" for four years.

Joseph Anderson skippered the Graff canal boat "John Hill" before establishing the Anderson House hotel at Salt and Point streets in Saltsburg.

Unlike many other boat lines, Saltsburg's Marshall and Blairsville's Graff did not operate on Sundays.

Dzombak noted the foremost boat line operating on the Western Division was that of David Leech, whose various business enterprises helped develop the small village of Friendship into the canal town named for him, Leechburg.

Leech was a civil engineer in Mercer County before he moved to Friendship to construct a major canal lock.

Reportedly, the first canal boats to arrive in Saltsburg, on May 15, 1829, were two vessels belonging to David Leech's line--the "Pioneer" and the "Pennsylvania."

While most Leech packets were designed for 25 passengers, often as many as 40 were crammed on.

According to a 1903 volume on regional history, written by John Newton Boucher, Leech's canal boat line in 1830 charged 20 cents per 100 pounds for freight and two cents a mile for passengers. The fare for the entire 395-mile Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia passenger run was about $7.

In 1833, freight making the cross-state trek carried a shipping cost of $25 per ton--with the trip taking from eight to 12 days. Three years later, English engineer David Stevenson made the journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 91 hours. The fare had risen to three pounds sterling, or nearly four cents per mile.

In 1848, Leech dropped his fare to 75 cents for a passage from Blairsville to Pittsburgh. Stephenson noted the price cut miffed Marshall, who had been charging $1.37.

Records show more than twice the amount of freight was shipped west as was sent east on the Main Line canal.

During the year ending October 1833, eastbound traffic totaled 8.4 million tons of freight and 40,280 passenger miles.

While freight boats were typically pulled by a single mule, "express" packets were tied to a three-horse team "going at a trot," Dzombak noted.

Every 10 miles, a stable provided a change of horses. While the pace may have been a challenge for the horses, it was no less so for the boys who would lead the teams along the towpath. About 1843, some packets began to be "sectionalized" so that each boat section could be detached and mounted on a rail car--making a trip possible across the entire state without transferring between passenger compartments.

Later in the canal era, some freight boats also were designed in sections and were covered with sheet iron.

According to Stephenson, the Reliance Line of portable iron-covered boats was built beginning in about 1839 by Samuel M. Kier at Coalport in Conemaugh Township, a village downstream from Saltsburg.

With their hulls bearing a 1/8th-inch coating of sheet iron, the boats were referred to as "iron sides"--predating by about two decades the "iron-clad" vessels developed for the Civil War. But there were concerns about the sectional freight boats. Their cargo capacity--about six or seven tons per section--was limited by weight and size restrictions set by the railroad. That meant a four-piece sectional boat could haul only about 28 tons, compared to the usual 40-ton weight limit for a single-section freight boat.

Also, careful maneuvering was required to get the sectional boats through the locks.

On Jan. 6, 1848, Saltsburg formed a Section Boat Committee. It was comprised of citizens engaged in canal boating and boatbuilding who were concerned about the problems encountered with section boats and the response to those problems by the state's Canal Commissioners.

Committee members included: Chairman John W. Elder; Samuel Duncan, a ship carpenter and canal maintenance man; boatman and grist mill operator Major John G. McQuaide; boatman, school teacher and justice of the peace Marshall Shields; merchant William Redpath.

As the canal was operated by the Commonwealth, positions were doled out as political plums and costly mismanagement was an ongoing problem.

While many boat lines were profitable, the canal system itself was in the red.

But it was the undeniable advantages of rail travel--speed and year-round service--which brought an end to the canal era in Saltsburg and other Main Line towns.

"The last freight was seen on the canal in 1864," Dzombak noted.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.