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When the western frontier was won, settlers moved rapidly into the empty, fertile land north of the Ohio River. Luxuries aside, the most significant thing that these pioneers lacked. was a practical transportation system to the eastern seaboard. This need was filled, in the early 18th Century, by the Erie Canal in New York, and the other great east-west canals that followed: The Pennsylvania Main Line, The Chesapeake and Ohio, The James and Kanawha systems.
Maturing rapidly from mere detours around river rapids, the American canals soon became the super highways of their day. The frontier communities were no longer isolated and forced to be almost totally self-reliant, but could now be supplied with goods from the east at reasonable cost. Thousands of miles of canals were built before the railroads came along, surprisingly soon, and, proving even more efficient, tipped the scales the other way.
As the rail system expanded, the canals were soon abandoned and forgotten. The romance of the boatman's conch horn was traded for the shrill blast of a steam whistle. Track ballast covered the canal beds, and the stone from locks and aqueducts disappeared into bridge piers and barn foundations.
Today, a surprising number of canal remnants are visible -- if you know where to look and how to recognize them.
Canal historians -- mostly amateurs -- are people who are curious about this unique chapter in our history, and about what was left behind for us to wonder about (and often desecrate). A number of organizations have been formed, and canallers will use any excuse to get together to talk, look at pictures or tramp through the swamps.
The Beaver Division Canal, extended from Rochester to New Castle, Penna., and the southern end of the Erie Extension Canal to Sharpsville, Penna.
The Beaver Division has been overlooked by modern canallers because much of the route has been erased by industrial development and the railroads. Recent fieldwork, however, has revealed some forgotten locksites.
Built in 1832-34, The Beaver Division, as part of the Pennsylvania Canal System, extended the waterways north and east of Pittsburgh. A few years later, the state initiated the Erie Extension Canal, to complete the route from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The Extension was completed by private capital in 1844. Little remains of this extensive project, which required 52 locks from the Ohio River to the summit at Conneaut Lake, and 71 locks down to Lake Erie. Unaccountably, one lock, at Sharpsville, Penna., remains in almost perfect condition.
Much of the traffic from Pittsburgh west on the Beaver Division was directed westward to Ohio on the Pennsylvania and Ohio, or "Crosscut" Canal, rather than north to Erie. Extending from Akron east through Youngstown, the "Crosscut" Canal joined the Pennsylvania System near New Castle, competing quite successfully with the parallel Sandy and Beaver Canal to the south.
The Montgomery Island Lock and Dam on the Ohio River is an important feature. Completion of this facility just below the mouth of the Beaver in 1935 raised the level of the river enough to cover the outlet lock and dam on the Beaver Division. The second in this flight of locks at Rochester, called the Girard Locks, was visible until about ten years ago. The river wall may still be seen.
The terminal locks were named for financier Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, who provided capital for internal improvements in Pennsylvania. Other locks along the route were popularly named for local canal personalities. Next upstream, in New Brighton, five locks were named successively "Blount", "Boyle's", "Buck Woods", "Van Lear's", and the "Dutchman's". Above the "State" dam adjacent to the latter lock, the canal entered the river for a stretch of "slackwater" navigation, which extended to Eastvale. There, another dam raised the river and "Bannon's" and "Farrow's" locks raised the canal traffic to the "Seven Mile Level", slackwater that extended to the Rock Point Lock and Dam in Lawrence County.
Eight additional locks raised the canal to the level of New Castle. One lock was located near "Hardscrabble" (Newport), three near East Moravia (West Pittsburgh) and one opposite Mahoningtown, near the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal junction. In the city of New Castle, an aqueduct crossed Big Run, and two locks raised the canal to the level of the Neshannock Creek, which was crossed on slackwater. The Beaver Division entered the Shenango River across town, and followed it upstream for about five miles to Harbor Bridge, where the canal technically became the Erie Extension Canal.
Altogether, four of the nine Beaver County locks are in evidence, as are three of the eight Lawrence County Locks.