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Central Pennsylvania’s early pioneers depended on the Susquehanna River and its tributaries for transportation. During the Spring and Fall, “freshets” would turn the normally tranquil river into a dangerous and difficult river highway. To make use of the swiftly flowing water as efficient transportation, the settlers built arks and rafts to travel and to take their goods to markets in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
In 1824, in The Danville Watchman, an early newspaper, a writer noted that 100,000 bushels of wheat, 3000 bushels of clover seed, 3000 barrels of whiskey, and 250 tons of pork and lumber were shipped in the spring via the river. Anthracite coal for heating was also loaded on rafts to descend the river. The timbers used to build the river rafts and arks were sold once the vessels arrived at their destination.
It was impossible to return upriver by poling because the river was too shallow and impassable by boat during most of the year. As a result, businessmen and merchants recognized that a canal system was imperative for industrial progress in Pennsylvania. Canals had already been popular in England since the late 1700s. By 1800, there was a canal “boom” in the United States.
Danville, situated twelve miles above the Northumberland basin on the original North Branch Canal, which was an extension of the Pennsylvania Canal System, was the home of Daniel Montgomery, for whom the town was named. He was also president of the Board of Commissioners that was formed in 1826 to promote internal improvements in the state. Many felt that Daniel influenced the location of the canal through the town. Generally the canal would have hugged the Susquehanna, but in Danville, the route along what is now Lower Mulberry Street placed the canal next to Daniel’s homestead and his family’s businesses. Danville is unique in that the canal travels through the center of town, away from the river. It is the only town on the system that is traversed by the canal.
A gala ground-breaking ceremony with a military parade was held on July 4, 1828 in Berwick. All of the local towns were represented at this event. Alex Jameson led a team of red oxen, pulling the gigantic plow of Nathan Beach, a prominent North Branch advocate and delegate to the Canal Convention of 1825. As it plowed through the first furrows, Luzerne County Judge William Hollenback and General Daniel Montgomery shoveled the loosened earth into wheel barrows which were then dumped at the future site of the canal’s towpath. The ceremony was completed when a rock was blasted with black powder and cannons were fired. Rain forced those gathered for the affair to a local inn for a fine meal and toasts were given to honor thirteen proud moments in American history.
F. Charles Petrillo in Anthracite and Slackwater: The North Branch Canal 1828-1901, wrote that “five fist fights broke out before the celebration ended and the affair was considered a wild success.” Finally, after three years of difficult, back-breaking work which was done by foreign laborers, mostly Irish immigrants, the canal was ready for water.
By the early autumn of 1831, water levels were sufficient to allow loaded canal boats to travel from Nanticoke to Northumberland, a distance of sixty-five miles. Their intent was to meet up with the West Branch Canal and continue the journey south, but by December the water was frozen and boating stopped for the season.
The length of the canal through Montour and Columbia counties was about 24 miles with four locks in Columbia and one in Montour County. The entire canal and all of its branches was completed in 1853, but not fully opened until 1856. The total cost of construction was $1,598,379.34. The agricultural products, whiskey, and merchandise that had been shipped on river arks and rafts were now loaded onto canal boats. Entrepreneurs soon discovered the value of anthracite coal for the iron industry and began developing early furnaces and mills – not only in the anthracite region, but all along the canal to the slack water. This new use of coal contributed significantly to the success of the North Branch Canal.
On October 8, 1845, the first iron T-rail rolled with iron ore smelted with anthracite coal was rolled at the Montour Iron Works in Danville. Thousands of tons of coal was shipped from the Wyoming coal field to that mill to produce the rails that when finished were loaded onto canal boats to begin their journey to a distant railroad that was under construction. The disadvantages of building next to a river quickly became evident. Flooding often broke through the walls and caused considerable damage, and the canal system was often shut down for costly repairs.
One cannot emphasize enough the importance of the canal system in its day. It meant prosperity and growth for the communities along its path by opening opportunities for trade. Gradually, as the “iron horse” became a more practical means of transportation, rumors were heard up and down the valley about the closing of the canal.
On April 11, 1901, the Pennsylvania Canal Company formally announced the abandonment of the canal system stranding many boats in the “Big Ditch.” On June 3, the company diverted water into the canal to allow owners to remove their boats and drained it for a final time on June 13. The Danville Board of Health adopted a resolution stating that “the Pennsylvania Canal Company has abandoned the use of the canal for navigation, leaving it in the condition of an open sewer, traversing the entire length of the town, thus menacing the health of the whole community.” The Board asked the company to let three feet of water stand in the canal to prevent disease.One of Danville’s, and Pennsylvania’s, most colorful and romantic periods in the nation’s history ended when the canal was filled with dirt.
In Danville, all references to the location of any merchant was always described as being either north or south of the canal.