top of page



Long-distance transport of anthracite by canal began in 1825 with completion of the Schuylkill Canal.  However, well before the end of the 19th century, the great majority of anthracite was being transported by rail -- to Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, the Lehigh Valley, Reading, Harrisburg, Buffalo and other industrial and commercial centers in the Northeast U.S. -- and traffic on Pennsylvania's canals had become relatively insignificant.


The Schuylkill Canal was completed in 1825 by the Schuylkill Navigation Company from Port Carbon (east of Pottsville) to Philadelphia via Reading.  It was leased to the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad in 1870, and ended commercial service in 1925. {5}  It is probable that of all the canals, the Schuylkill Canal transported the greatest number of ton-miles of anthracite.


The extensive State Canal System was constructed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania between 1826 and 1856.  By 1859, all canals owned by the commonwealth were sold.  By 1901, nearly the entire state canal system had been shut down, although a few canals remained in operation until the 1940s.  Three divisions of the state system were significant relative to transporting anthracite from the anthracite fields:

  • The North Branch Division opened in 1831 between Northumberland and Nanticoke area, on the north (right) bank of the Susquehanna River (North Branch). {6}  The canal was extended upriver to Pittston in 1834 and from there to Athens in 1856.Service ended in 1872.

  • The Susquehanna Division opened in 1831 between Northumberland and Clark's Ferry (Duncan's Island), on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.Service ended in 1890.

  • The Eastern Division ran on the east bank of the Susquehanna River between Clark's Ferry (Duncan's Island) and Columbia.It began operation in 1833 and ceased to operate in 1900.


The Union Canal was constructed by the Union Canal Company and began operation in 1828. {7}  The canal connected the Schuylkill and Susquehanna river canal systems, extending 81 miles between Reading and Middletown. {8}  A 22-mile-long "Swatara Feeder" or "Pine Grove branch" joined the main canal west of Lebanon to provide water and also to convey coal traffic to the main canal.  In 1833, a short rail line was constructed to transport coal to the canal from Pine Grove.  The canal ceased operation in 1884.

The Delaware & Hudson Canal was completed by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (D&H) and operated from 1829 through 1899.  The canal ran from Honesdale along the Lackawaxen River to the Delaware River, down the Delaware River on the New York side to Port Jervis, up the Neversink River and then down to the Hudson River near Kingston, NY. {9}  A sixteen-mile-long gravity railroad owned by the D&H transported coal from Carbondale in the Lackawanna Valley to Honesdale.  ["D&H Gravity," below] {10}  In 1850, the Pennsylvania Coal Company constructed a 47-mile-long gravity railroad, to transport coal from Port Griffith (Pittston) to the D&H canal at Hawley.  ["Pennsylvania Coal Company Gravity," below] {11}  These two gravity railroads are well studied and mapped.


The Lehigh Canal was completed by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in 1829, from Mauch Chunk to Easton, and expanded upriver to White Haven in 1835, a total distance of 72 miles. {12}  At Easton, the Lehigh Canal joined the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, which led from Easton to tidewater above Philadelphia. {13}  A cable ferry provided access from Easton to the Morris Canal in New Jersey. {14} The Lehigh Canal ended service in 1931.


The "Wiconisco Line" ran along the east bank of the Susquehanna River between Millersburg and Clarks Ferry.  It was completed 1845 by a private company, was later sold to a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and ended service in 1889.



{5} The Auburn Tunnel, 450 feet long, was completed in 1821 and is said to be the first tunnel in the U.S.

​{6} A dam on the river at Nanticoke created headwater for the canal.

{7} The Union Canal is said to have been the first canal route surveyed in America, in 1762.

{8} The Union Canal Tunnel, 729 feet long, may be explored in Union Canal Tunnel Park, in Lebanon.

{9} The canal was 108 miles long.  John Roebling, to become famous as the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, constructed four aqueducts for the canal.  The Delaware aqueduct at Lackawaxen has been rebuilt and preserved by the National Park Service for pedestrian and automobile crossing of the Delaware River.

{10} The famous Stourbridge Lion, the first locomotive in the U.S., was tested on this gravity railroad but never operated commercially.

{11} The Pennsylvania Coal Company Railroad became known as "The Gravity" or the "Pennsylvania Gravity Railroad."

{12} It is popularly said that Lehigh Coal and Navigation "owned" the Lehigh River, thus making the river the only privately-owned river in the U.S.  While the company apparently had free rein to dam and control the river for navigation, whether the company's charter granted "ownership" is questionable.

{13} The Delaware Division was completed in 1832.  Lehigh Coal and Navigation leased the Delaware Division in about 1860.

{14} The Morris Canal extended from Phillipsburg, NJ to Newark in 1831 and reached Jersey City by 1836.

bottom of page