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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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Trace of the old canal in Greenville
Trace of the old canal in Greenville, going south to the Ohio River, November 1999 Photo : Nathan Leary

Erie Extension Canal and Canal Museum

When the Erie Canal, crossing New York state from Albany to Lake Erie, had been in operation some ten or twelve years, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was shipping from Philadelphia to Pittburgh on a southern Pennsylvania route. Suffering from severe "canal fever," the citizens, entrepreneurs and visionary businessmen in northwestern Pennsylvania began to agitate for their own canal. They wanted a canal that would connect the Erie Canal with the Pennsylvania Main Line, Lake Erie, and the Ohio River, thus extending the infrastructure to support the surge of people moving westward and bringing new prosperity to northwestern Pennsylvania by providing a safe and reliable means of moving commercial goods between major eastern and western cities. Around 1838, the building of the Erie Extension Canal was commenced at the old town of Beaver on the Ohio River; it was completed for shipping to the Port of Erie in 1844. Winding through five northwestern Pennsylvania counties, it connected the Ohio River with Lake Erie.

In Mercer County, on the "Big Bend" of the river south of Greenville, lived the pioneering German families who farmed along the waterway, served the needs of the canal and its travelers, and defined the culture and traditions of the region. Irish laborers, assigned 15-mile stretches of canal work, had dug the 130-mile length of the canal. They lived in shantytowns, receiving meager wages and their daily "tot of whiskey." In 1873, the destruction of an aqueduct across Elk Creek Gorge which had allowed canal boats to cross the deep river gorge spelled the end of the Erie Extension Canal. Some believed that railroad designers had deliberately caused its destruction. Railroads were becoming the preferred transportation of the period; the canal beds provided the perfect basis for the railroad bed.

This canal and its culture is memorialized in the Erie Canal Extension Museum in Greenville, which evolved from plans made in 1988 to mark the sesquicentennial of the incorporation of the town. The museum documents the complete history of the Erie Extension Canal. A full-sized 40-foot canal boat replica, a model grist mill, and other period artifacts are featured. A miniature working model of a lock educates visitors about the workings of the canal and its civil engineering. The complete masonry remains of Erie Extension Lock number 10 are preserved in a public park with picnic grounds and fishing facilities.

Project materials include a six-page report on the history of the Erie Canal Extension, several pages on the museum itself, and sixteen mounted 5 x 9 black and white photographs with descriptions.

Originally submitted by: Phil English, Representative (21st District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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