When we have young visitors to our Museum, they manage to throw us a question about the Canal that went through Conneautville. We can take them to the front window where they can see Rt. 18, and a short distance beyond are the rails of the railroad. Imagine their quizzical expression when they are told there was a big ditch between these two. One that was full of water and carried boats to and from Erie. Sometimes it is hard for us to imagine too!
Way back in the beginning as settlers were moving westward, roads were not as we know them today. They were made by removing trees, dead stumps, rocks and boulders. Certainly not a smooth surface. As our settlements grew, transportation was not just by foot and horseback, but by oxen pulling wagons, even conestoga wagons carrying supplies, and stage coaches carrying people. The passengers cried for better roads and as this part of the State became more populated, supplies were needed. Farmers wanted to send their products to market, money was scarce and merchandise was acquired by trading produce, grain, or labor for the needed supplies. In the late 1700's and early 1800's canals in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, and New York State proved to be a faster means of travel.
A Canal was dug from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with access to the Ohio River and the route West. Although this was a costly project and took years to build, there was a need to make a connection to Lake Erie in the North. It is due to the surveys conducted and the existing water sources, that the Conneaut Valley route was chosen.
The construction of Canals were guided by the existing water supply and with French Creek to the south of Meadville, Pymatuming Swamp, Conneaut Lake and Conneaut Creek flowing North and having numerous tributaries, it was the best route. The elevation of the land was also taken into consideration and the engineers had to figure a way to get water to flow over higher elevations on the way to Erie. A feeder canal was used to run water from French Creek to Conneaut Lake, the Pymatuming swamp was cleared of dead logs, stumps and brush and was used as a reservoir to supply water to the Canal. Conneaut Lake's elevation was raised an additional 11' to provide the necessary water to float boats north and south in the Canal. A dam was constructed at the outlet to Conneaut Creek and many places along the Creek north. These dams would be used to let water into the Canal as needed to pass boats through the locks at various elevations. Construction of this Canal was in sections and our portion of the Canal was called the "Conneaut Section". A Canal Company had been formed to raise money for a portion of this Canal and it was also their job to acquire the properties along the way. They had the right to sell or lease the water privileges. Keep in mind, factories and mills were using water power at that time and this was another way to raise money.
The State required a Lock tender be present at each lock and there were weigh stations along the Canal. A boat was charged a toll based on the weight of his boat and cargo. If he missed a weigh station or picked up additional cargo along the way, he was charged for the extra weight the entire route. Another requirement was that all boats carry a light on its bow at night.
Although the Canal route tried to take advantage of the existing streams which had already cut a path through the hills, it was sometimes necessary to deviate or widen the course by digging into these hills. This was call a "cut". We have two of these in our Borough, one at the south of town and the other across from the Cemetery and Rt. 18 where the John Deere dealership is located. The enclosed picture shows the southern cut which may have been the bed of Conneaut Creek and the Canal. The Canal then continued north on what is now called "Canal" Street, but it's route had been straightened and was no longer using the creek bed. It passed "Pond" Street and "Turtle Alley". These Streets, including Water Street no doubt received their names from the Canal days. A dam located on Conneaut Creek north of Mulberry St. and a lock located at the present "Old Depot Rd." provided the lift to move boats over the next hump beyond our present day Canal Park. The Dam provided the water by a "race" (trough or small aqueduct) where water could be flowed into the Canal to raise it's elevation behind the lock. As the lock was opened the boat drifted onto the next level. Yes, there were tow paths and these were anywhere from 3 to 9 ft. above the surface of the water in the canal. The mules or horses where unhitched from their tow lines at every lock. Conneautville is fortunate to have visible signs of this water channel and tow path along Rt. 18. We know some of these facts from reading deeds. The lock mentioned was on the property of a Mr. Douglass. When the canal was closed, the stone in the lock remained in his possession. An old map of the Town illustrates the Dam and the "race" to this lock. A building, the "Banner Block" located on Center St. owned by Mr. Banner, editor of a weekly paper called the "Conneautville Whig Banner", could look out to the Canal from his office and reported this fact in his paper. Ticknor & Co. located in the south of the Borough had water privileges from the Canal Co. to run their machinery by their water wheel as did a Foundry near Jefferson St. and another grain and saw mill near the Old Depot Rd. At the close of this canal, both of these industries converted to steam for their power.
Why did this canal close? Not mentioned before is the northern route beyond Albion, Cranesville and Platea. Elk Creek is a vast gorge where an aqueduct was constructed on a wooden tressel network to carry water and boats across the valley to Girard. A smaller aqueduct was needed at Walnut Creek. Both of these ravines needed to be crossed to take the Canal into Erie. The Elk Creek Aqueduct was 110 feet above the creek and 410 feet long. We do not know the material used in its construction, but assume it was wood as the lower supports were of wooden trestles. (You can click on the illustration to enlarge it.) It is not known if this aqueduct was covered or open to the weather. It was a sturdy structure as it had to withstand the cross winds and stormy weather. The Canal Co. was not making a lot of money as the Railroads were making progress in the State and there was a great deal of competition. The bridge fell into disrepair and on September 14, 1871, during a storm, about 100 feet of the aqueduct collapsed. It was never rebuilt. Shareholders sold their stock to the Railroad Co.
The Erie Extension Canal made a tremendous impact on the towns it passed through. The Town of Conneautville became the third place in size and importance in Crawford County. It became a great trading center and provided manufacturing opportunities for those in need of a water supply. All of our brick buildings were built at this time of our history.
Where are the pictures of this Canal? For those interested, we have several books on the Canals of Pennsylvania, Many have pictures, but not of our Canal.
Tracks being laid in the Canal and creek bed south of Conneautville. The smoke stack in the background was from the former Saxton Chemical Co. (present location of Penn Products). Tow path in the foreground may have been used by the railroad before the channel of the Creek was changed in 1906.