Researchers from Elizabethtown College Study History of Canals and Front Street Homes in Marietta

Written by Jean-Paul Benowitz, Director of Special Programs and Prestigious Scholarships & Fellowships; Elizabethtown College

At Elizabethtown College, this past spring semester 2021, students enrolled in Jean-Paul Benowitz’s course: Honors/Public Heritage Studies 201: Elizabethtown History: “Campus and Community”, conducted a research project entitled, “Marietta, Pennsylvania’s Historic Homes On Front Street: Transportation, Trade, Triumph, and Tragedy Along the Susquehanna River and the Pennsylvania Canal.” This summer 2021, Honors student Kyle Cappucci, engaged in a Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts, and Research Projects (SCARP) plotting students’ findings about the relationship of Marietta’s historic properties to the history of transportation and trade along the Susquehanna River and the Pennsylvania Canal.

This project relates to a Mellon Grant: “Confronting Challenges with Confidence: Humanities for Our World Today,” specifically regarding the “Regional Heritage Studies” component of the grant Elizabethtown College received. Regional studies is important to the local economy. For seven decades, the local tourism industry has been a major contributor to the economy of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The number of tourism industry direct jobs makes tourism Lancaster County’s sixth largest private sector, non-farm, category in the local economy. In 2018, some 8.85 million visitors came to Lancaster County, up 2.5% from the previous year.

On the left, Honors student Kyle Cappucci, Elizabethtown College Class of 2022, who has is taken for the third time, HONORS 201/ PUBLIC HERITAGE STUDIES 201 “Elizabethtown History: Campus and Community” taught by Professor Jean-Paul Benowitz. On the right Carl H. Doan Elizabethtown College Class of 1973. Majoring in History, Carl Doan took courses taught by Marietta resident, Professor Scott T. Swank Elizabethtown College Class of 1964.

The students are hopeful their research findings can major contribute to Marietta’s asset-based planning process to identify and mobilize existing as well as unrecognized resources such as physical, human, social, financial, environmental, political, cultural, and historical assets. To this end, the students are interested in launching a “This Place Matters” for Marietta.

This Place Matters is a national campaign, created by the National Historic Preservation Trust, encouraging people to celebrate places meaningful to them and to their communities. Since 2015 participants have shared more than 10,000 photographs of themselves and their favorite places on social media using the hashtag #ThisPlaceMatters. The National Historic Preservation Trust provides a toolkit for communities to launch their own This Place Matters campaign.  People around the world are sharing photos of places of historical significance. This campaign is not just public awareness through photography and social media. It is about telling the stories of why these places hold historical significance. Through This Place Matters, the National Historic Preservation Trust encourages and inspires an ongoing dialogue about the importance of place and preservation.

The next time you are on the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail (2007) in Marietta, imagine the path of the Pennsylvania Canal (1824-1900) running parallel to the Susquehanna River. Take a moment to consider Nebuchadnezzar, the great ruler of Babylon in 500 B. C., remaking a canal which is believed to have first been dug more than a thousand years earlier. The Nebuchadnezzar Royal Canal connected the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Imagine China’s Grand Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 1,000 miles long connecting Hangchou and Tientsin, built in 500 B. C. Reflecting on how there are more than 26,000 miles of canal in all parts of the world, suddenly Marietta feels much older and more connected to the world than it seems today.

When you walk around Marietta and you come across the Duffy-Rottmund House (1863) on Market Street, formerly Irishtown, think about Colonel James Duffy (1818-1888) as a boy, growing up along the Susquehanna River, working on the log rafts as a draftsman until earning the rank of pilot and making a successful career in river transportation. In 1846 he traveled through Europe making a study of canals and, returning to Marietta, he fulfilled his goal of making the Pennsylvania Canal through Marietta a major corridor for transporting coal. By 1848 Colonel Duffy established a line of boats for transporting coal from Pottsville to New York, in the interests of the Schuylkill Navigation Company.

When you think about Marietta and the Pennsylvania Canal remember it was based on a model established in 1639 when Mother Brook, the first canal, was built connecting the Charles and Neponset Rivers in Dedham, Massachusetts. From the beginning, Americans accepted waterways as the best method of traveling, or for moving goods from one place to another. Construction on the Pennsylvania Canal started in 1824, it was a system of canals, dams, locks, tow paths, aqueducts, viaducts, tunnels, and bridges facilitating shipment of heavy bulk goods between Philadelphia (1682) and Pittsburgh (1758). The Pennsylvania Canal System developed in response to the growing markets in the Northwest Territory reached by the Ohio River through connecting the Susquehanna, Juniata, Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas, and Alleghany Rivers. When finished in 1834 the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, via the Main Line of Public Works (1826), could be made in three to five days. More than 4,000 miles of canals in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana were started or planned between 1825 and 1845.

The wonder of it all was the fact there were no American engineers at the time, and neither was there any excavating machinery. With no more than the ingenuity of local surveyors and such simple tools as shovels and wheelbarrows, these artificial rivers were cut through the most difficult countryside. The equally amazing thing is how the canals are still functioning. Today we find modern railroads using ancient canal beds for their own track beds. Sometimes we drive through a high-walled section of farmland which was first a canal way before it became a highway. We might have thought a ditch running parallel to a railroad that was for drainage- actually it was once a canal; the present railway tracks are built on what was once the tow path. Or we might come upon some lofty bridge piers across a river where there is no roadway: we would hardly suspect they once held a wooden aqueduct and canal way, carrying it and the canal traffic high across the roaring river below.

The Pennsylvania Canal was not the only waterway serving the local economy of Marietta. In 1797 the Conewago Canal began carrying riverboats around the Conewago Falls on the Susquehanna River near York Haven. The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, built between 1836-1840, connected Wrightsville (1811) with Havre de Grace, Maryland (1785). The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal facilitated transportation of lumber, coal, and raw materials from Marietta (1719) and Columbia (1724) to the Port of Baltimore (1729). This is the reason why the economy in Marietta was built on lumber, coal, whiskey, and transportation.

The origins of the Pennsylvania Canal date back to 1690 when William Penn proposed building a canal connecting Philadelphia with the Susquehanna River. It took 102 years until in 1792, as an initiative of the Washington administration (1789-1797), the Union Canal, was completed in 1828. Running eighty-two miles, the Union Canal connected Middletown (1755) on the Susquehanna River to Reading (1748) on the Schuylkill River. By 1834 the Main Line of Public Works, composed of interlocking canals, was transporting passengers and freight across 1,243 miles. Incrementally the canals system was integrated into and eventually replaced by the rail roads. In 1859, one hundred and sixty-nine years after William Penn’s canal proposal, all canals owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were sold. The Pennsylvania Rail Road (1846) formed the Pennsylvania Canal Company and continued to use canals for freight transportation. The canal business, however, declined steadily in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and most Pennsylvania canals no longer functioned after 1900.

The last canal boat to enter Marietta was in August of 1900. Captain Morris Nagle piloted a canal boat carrying coal from Nanticoke (1800) in Luzerne County. Captain Nagle docked the boat at Gay Street. The boat was dismantled and buried beneath the railroad bed when the Pennsylvania Rail Road was installed over the canal tow path. In Marietta, along the Pennsylvania Canal, boats were drawn by mules guided along the tow path parallel to Front Street. A double canal boat could handle up to 250 tons of freight with a single mule team on the tow path. In the winter, the canal was drained to minimize damage from ice blocks and in the spring flooding (good for river transportation) washed out sections of the canal. The last log raft to float down the Susquehanna River to Marietta landed on April 12, 1911. Thus in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, transportation along the Susquehanna River and the Pennsylvania Canal were entirely replaced by the rail road network, changing the physical landscape of Marietta, and the culture as well.

Below is the web address to the ArcGIS map which features Marietta’s historic properties, along Front Street, relating to the Pennsylvania Canal which has been incorporated into the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail. Here you can find full reports of each property and the case each student has made as to why “This Place Matters!”

Historic Walking Tour of Marietta: Front Street and the Pennsylvania Canal (Map 3 of 3):