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The Canal in Spring City

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

By William C. Brunner, President Emeritus

If one says the railroad gave rise to the development of Royersford, then it must be said the Schuylkill Canal gave rise to the development of Spring City. In 1824 the canal came through East Vincent Township in Chester County, bordering the Royer’s brothers’ farms in what would soon become the town of Springville. East Vincent’s final borders were determined in 1832 and the town of Springville was developing by then. In 1830 a natural spring was found on Frederick Yost’s farm, formerly owned by Benjamin Royer. Many people attribute the naming of the town of Springville directly to this spring. In 1835 James Rogers built a small store behind Main Street on the canal as three houses were being built on the street that same year. In 1840 Rogers built a foundry on Main Street and it was shipping out stoves with the name Springville stamped in the castings. In 1847 a large paper mill was built by the American Wood & Paper Company and there could be no doubt Springville was firmly established. The actual town became incorporated in 1867 as a borough and was now separate from East Vincent.

This view from 1901 show the Canal Store located just below Main Street.

The name of Springville was short lived as the local Post Office was not able to use that name. It seems someone else in Pennsylvania already had that name. After much deliberation, the name of Spring City was selected. The name of Springville was retired and in 1873 the official name became Spring City.

The early canal industries

There were two main industries that developed along the canal in Spring City in the early 1800s. The first was the Stove Foundry of James Rogers which was built in 1840 and was in full operation, shipping stoves in 1843. The second being the American Wood & Paper Company that is shown here above.

Canals were the beginning of the transportation revolution in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was one of the leading states in the building of canals. The construction of canals in the early 1800s was labor intensive without the modern equipment that was later developed. The need for labor was largely met by Irish immigrants coming to our area in need of work. The “Schuylkill Canal” was what everyone called it, but its correct name was the Schuylkill Navigation Company. The company was incorporated in 1815 and stock was sold. The goal was to build a canal from Port Carbon, near Pottsville, all the way to Philadelphia using the Schuylkill River and building a series of dams and canals all along the 108-mile journey.

Seen above is a section of an 1893 overview map showing the path of the old canal as it passes through the town of Spring City. At the top right section on the map you can see the old paper mill. The mill was in the process of closing at this time and the property was leased to the Pennsylvania Shafting Company the following year. Passing by the mill the next structure in view is the canal bridge, close by to the present-day Turkey Hill Market. The small iron bridge just below the canal bridge is that of the PRR railroad. The railroad siding snaked its way up to the Bennett Glass Works shown at the top left side of the map. As one follows the canal it continues in back of the stores and houses on Main Street. There were numerous industries on South Main Street at this time. The next prominent industry at the bottom left (not shown on the map) would have been the Spring City Stove Works of Yeager & Hunter. The canal continues past the industries on South Main Street and rejoins the river below Spring City at lock 59.

The term scalloped was often used to describe the configuration as the canal sections were on either side and the dams enabled the boats to travel on long stretches of the river before going through locks. The hand dug canal sections totaled 62 miles and the remainder was travel on the backed up slack water sections of the river created by the dams. Locally we had Vincent (Yankee Dam) above town and Black Rock Dam below. Black Rock Dam survives today. In many cases a town would develop near these locks.

In 1824 when the canal opened here, the primary purpose was to transport the coal from the northern coal mines of Pennsylvania down to the city of Philadelphia to supply their need for coal. Coal to run their factories, heat their homes and to export. Passengers also purchased tickets to ride and soon commercial products coming out of the city were coming back on the canal boats. The peak years for the canal were between 1835 and 1841 although coal continued to be shipped until the last load traveled down the canal in 1925. In 1839 the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad ran a train that passed through Royersford and that marked the beginning of a new era of transportation. The canal was now faced with a competition that would over a period of time make the canal less desirable. People could travel cheaper and faster by rail and the railroads did not close for the winter season as many canal boats sat idle in the frozen waters of winter.

It was in 1835 when James Rogers purchased a large tract of property that included a house and barn at 328 Brown Street in Springville. He built and opened a small store on the canal down right below Main Street in the middle of town. It is no doubt that the canal was what attracted James to come from the French Creek area to Springville. There was a steady flow of canal boats passing by and the opportunity to sell products to the local farmers was inviting.

I might add here that James had petitioned the courts for the right to sell liquor in town a few years earlier and his petition was denied. It seems they were being granted to taverns and stores servicing the travelers on the canal and at that time James did not own a store along the canal. In 1835 he was granted the permission. His store sold everything you could imagine, including liquor by the quart. The boats going down to Philadelphia carried large loads of coal and a limited number of passengers and on the return trip, products from the big city. It was during this time that the village of Springville grew into a small town. On an early map it shows E. S. Dismant as one of the first occupants. This store also served as the gatekeeper’s house. One of the last owners was Laura Collopy. In early 1984, when our historical society was first formed, this building was being considered as a possible location for a museum. The society recognized its historical value, but it was too small for an all-purpose museum and did not have adequate parking. It had lasted over 150 years but eventually removed. The significance of this building, like so many other ones in the Twin-Boroughs was just simply overlooked. It would have required an effort and the finding a way to raise money. A grant, or a local government or a way to raise money privately. It was a shame no one with the desire or ability to make it happen stepped forward.

In this street map from 1883 we can see the canal as it passed behind the Main Street in town and the location of the canal store. The Town Hall called the Lyceum and the Stove Foundry, other Rogers’ Main St, properties are also noted.

The Toy Horse

Here in the middle of the blog I am thinking of a pull toy, a special hand carved wooden child’s toy that was one of a vast assortment of things to be sold at the canal store during its time. It measures 10 inches in length and twelve inches high and has all its paint intact. What makes it special is the story that came along with it. It was sold at Rogers’ canal store and has survived well over 100 years. It was carefully packed away and stored in an attic as the little boy it was given to did not get to live to enjoy a long life. Many years later the boy’s mother found it packed away and gave it to Thelma Rice, a long time Spring City native. Years later, Thelma gave it to a relative, Dawn Shaner. Dawn is taking care of this guy and he now has a place of honor on her shelf at home. She was kind enough to share his story with me and allow me to take a photograph. I know they sold many items at the canal store but for one brief moment in time this toy horse put a smile on a little boy’s face and also survived a journey in time bringing its story along. I guess I am a small boy at heart because when I saw it, I got a smile on my face and a tear in my eye.

Shown here are two early 1900s postcard views of the canal bridge in Spring City. The one on the left shows the old Sun newspaper offices building in the background on the right side. A Real Photo-postcard on the right shows the same in the background but also the towpath in the foreground. Mules were often used to pull the canal boat. Most crews consisted of a captain, a bowsman and a leadsman, or driver, who guided the team. Below, is a watercolor painting by Dot Weikel from the perspective of the present day Turkey Hill in Spring City looking north toward East Bridge Street.)

Watercolor painting by SFAHS member, Dot Weikel

Above we see an actual salesman’s sample business card for the American Wood Paper Company in Spring City, the second large local industry on the canal.

After the paper mill closed, in 1894 the Shafting Works, moved in and opened.

Below, the Brandreth family from Royersford poses on a canal barge at the canal bridge in Spring City. This photograph dates to the very early 1900s.

Photo from the Brandreth Collection

The canal was enlarged, and improvements made in the early years and by the 1850’s there was 5 million tons of coal being shipped annually. It was during this time that the railroads started to have a major impact on the transportation markets. The canal business peaked in the 1870’s. Rail shipping was faster, cheaper, and operated all year long. The canal could not compete and eventually was leased to the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. Although the canal had become obsolete for commercial use it continued to operate until the 1920’s. The section of the canal that came through Spring City continued to be used in the summer for boating and fishing and in the winter for ice-skating. In the 1940’s the remainder of the canal in Spring City was filled in, as the stagnant waters had become a breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Even today there are short stretches of land that will fill with water where the canal bed once stood.

Recreation on the canal was popular and ice-skating in the winter when the canal was frozen over. Summer boating and fishing really became popular from 1900 until 1940 before the canal was drained as these two postcard scenes show.

Following the Canal from Parker Ford to Spring City

Beginning at Stezler’s Store in Parker Ford we will join the canal at lock 56. Shown here is an E.D. Miller postcard of lock 56. Just a short distance away is the Pigeon Creek Aqueduct shown below that carries the canal over the Pigeon Creek and allows us to continue the journey towards Spring City.

The aqueduct was a unique feature to find and demonstrated the amount of engineering required to complete this canal project. There are a few stone bases that remain from this structure that have survived.

Continuing downstream the next lock we will come to is Swartz’s lock number 57.

Frank Kline postcard view of Swartz’s lock

At lock 57 we enter the Schuylkill River and continue 1½ miles downstream to the Vincent Dam, more commonly called Yankee Dam by the residents of Spring City.

Yankee Dam was on the Towers Farm and you went on to the canal just above the dam and continued to the Tower’s lock number 58. The remains of the dam were removed in 2008. The farmhouse and barns remain today on private property.

In this artist's rendering of the Tower’s property the canal and lock can be seen from the persepctive of the Montgomery County side of the river. As we continue towards Spring City we will soon see the main cluster of buildings at Pennhurst that will be at the top of Crab Hill on our right. We will approach one of many railroad bridges we will see on the trip.

At this PRR bridge above Spring City near Pennhurst we can see a stop gate in the background. There were many stop gates on the canal route that could be used to block off sections of the canal for repairs as well as a means of flood control, regulating the water levels. At this point we are approaching the big paper mill which will be on our right and crossing under the canal bridge in the town. The traffic bridge located on East Bridge Street near the present-day Turkey Hill Market.

Arriving in the Borough of Spring City

As you enter Spring City from the north you can see the paper mill on the top left and then you pass under the canal bridge on the right. About 25 yards past the traffic bridge you will pass under the Pennsylvania railroad trestle that is going west to the Bennett Glass Works.

In this location you are near the present-day Turkey Hill store and facing the stop gate on the canal and the canal store just ahead. The canal store will be right on the edge of the canal while Main Street will be up the hill and what you will see is backyards with chicken coops and outhouses etc. Only the industries were at canal level for loading purposes.

Here on the right you can see the canal store in the background and the Schuylkill Navigation Company dredge #2. The dredges were used to clear coal silt and other sediment from the bed of the canal. The dredged material would be spread on the banks or disposed elsewhere.

This is an artist drawing of the Shantz Keeley Stove works that was created in the 1890s and featured in one of their many catalogs. This was the next major industry on the canal in Spring City that you would see, and it was only a short distance downstream from the canal store. In 1840 when the foundry was being built by James Rogers, it was just a handful of buildings and a loading dock down on the canal. In the 1890’s the stove works complex had 25 buildings and the main offices were up facing Main Street. The stove company now occupied the entire block.

Below Spring City, you come to Wissamer’s Lock #59. It is shown here on the left and was located near Cromby. This lock is where you enter back into the river and head downstream towards Black Rock Dam and Lock 60. At Lock 60 you will be entering the canal on the Montgomery side of the river with the town of Mont Clare just a short distance below the lock. It would be in walking distance from the dock.

This is a postcard view of Black Rock Dam from the Chester County side, looking at some fisherman on the dam breast and the entrance to Lock 60 on the other side. This dam is what is referred to as a low-head, stone-filled, timber crib dam. The postcard dates to 1910 but the dam still survives today. In 1960 the Philadelphia Electric Company, who owns the Cromby Electric Plant, renovated it, and capped it in cement. They could not afford to allow it to deteriorate as Yankee Dam did, because the Cromby Electric plant was dependent on water from the river for cooling. If the water level dropped lower than their intake pipes, they would have to stop operations. Having the dam repaired assured them a stable supply of water. The coal-fired plant was closed a few years ago. It was thought by many that it might reopen in the future but that has not happened.

This is a photo of the Dolphin, a canal boat that was seen often in the later years. The photo was taken at Lock 60 around 1930.

This is a classic postcard view of Lock #60 and was postmarked in 1907. This was an extremely popular photograph that appeared on many cards.

To the left is a 2005 photo of Lock #60 and the Locktender’s house. Lock number 60 and the Locktender’s house, along with a 2-½ mile stretch of the canal from Mont Clare to Port Providence are currently being cared for and restored under the watch of the Schuylkill Canal Association.

William C. Brunner served on the board of the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society for 30 years, 15 of those years serving as its president. He now serves as President Emeritus and continues to volunteer for the society. Bill has written three books about Spring City and Royersford, all available at the museum. He loves photography, garden railroading, postcard collecting, and local history. He graduated from Spring-Ford High School in 1962. He and his wife of 59 years, Joyce, live in Spring City. They have a son, Chuck, a daughter, Joyce, three grandchildren, Amber, Willie & Frank, and six great grandchildren.

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Larry Whyte
Larry Whyte
Jul 15, 2022

Very nice post, great photos and a good narrative describing the Schuylkill Navigation's contribution to the local economy.

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