|Author:||John M. Lawlor, Jr.|
|Title:||The Schuylkill Navigation System Project At Reading Area Community College: Preservation and Dissemination of an Important Collection of Transportation Documents|
|Publication Info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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The Schuylkill Navigation System Project At Reading Area Community College: Preservation and Dissemination of an Important Collection of Transportation Documents
John M. Lawlor, Jr.
vol. 5, no. 1, May 2002
The Schuylkill Navigation System Project At Reading Area Community College: Preservation and Dissemination of an Important Collection of Transportation Documents
A collection of over 1100 documents of the Schuylkill Navigation System was digitalized under a Library Services Technology Act grant at Reading Area Community College, Reading, PA. While the full set of documents was written to CD-ROM, a representative sampling was posted to the World Wide Web. The collection records the history of canal transportation on the Schuylkill Navigation System in eastern Pennsylvania through maps, plans, drawings, photographs, river profiles, and other forms. Project information, basic history of the canal system, web site content and navigation, and preliminary educational application of the collection documents are discussed.
The Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania flows from the anthracite coal region in the northeastern part of the state to Philadelphia where it joins with the Delaware. Reading, Pennsylvania, an urban area that became the seat of Berks County, was incorporated in 1748. It was planted and grew on the east bank of the river, about fifty miles upriver from Philadelphia. The river offered commercial opportunities for fishing and transportation, particularly in the springtime when the shad ran and the river was swollen with the snow melt.  A ferryman at Reading was open for business to transport travelers to the west bank. 
For most of the year, however, the river was shallow. The seventeen fords in the county in 1778 ranged from 5 to 18 inches in depth and several were listed as rocky. The growing demand for transportation, particularly from the expanding iron industry in the area, led to discussions to improve the navigational value of the river.  In 1815, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania chartered the Schuylkill Navigation System through an act of the General Assembly and in 1825 the canal system, a series of canal companies, opened for business. 
The system was an immediate success. The ten thousand shares authorized by the charter at a price of $50.00 rose to $175.00 by 1829. The system dramatically reduced the cost of shipping from forty cents per hundred pounds of produce to twelve and a half cents. The system transported half a million tons of produce, primarily coal, in 1842 and that increased to 1,275,988 tons of coal in 1857.  Canal-related employment rose for the construction, usage, and operation of the system. Canal builders, boatmen, boat builders and repairmen, stable hands and blacksmiths to care for and maintain the mules and horses that trod the tow paths, lock keepers, warehousemen, and dry dock workers were employed in occupations directly related to the canals.  Industries of a wide variety grew up along the banks of the canal. 
Construction is of particular interest as far as the Schuylkill Navigation System collection is concerned. The system was 107 miles long, divided into twelve "reaches" (segments). There were 140 locks, 18 dams, 17 aqueducts, and a 450-foot long tunnel.
Engineers, too, were employed in the construction and maintenance of the system and it is the record of their work that is contained within the maps, drawings, diagrams, and plans for everything from boats to stackwater dams and locks to sheds. There are over 1100 documents in the collection.  It is this portion of the Schuylkill Canal System history that the project at Reading Area Community College (RACC) sought to preserve and disseminate.
The collection was discovered in 1994 in a shed near Hamburg, PA. Mr. Victor R. H. Yarnell and Mr. J. Lawrence Heizman rescued the documents with Mr. Heizman cataloging and indexing them. Mr. Yarnell, at the time the director of the Schuylkill River Greenway Association and a trustee of the college, arranged for the collection to be housed at RACC.  In 1997 litigation between the City of Philadelphia and a property owner on the defunct canal boundaries led to interest in the collection being digitized to facilitate access as well as preserve the fragile documents. Philadelphia was undertaking the reconstruction of a segment of the canal through Manayunk, a western section of the city.
The author and Ms. Linda Waters, at the time an Educational Technology student, developed a prototype for the project with a model database, web site, and representative digital sampling of documents related to Manayunk's reach in response to Philadelphia's request for access. With this experience, the author joined in the proposal of a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Library Services Technology Act grant (LSTA) under the leadership of Ms. Mary Ellen Heckman, Director of Library Services at RACC. The grant provided funding requests for project management, equipment and software acquisition, and stipends for three student workers.
In 2000, the library received the LSTA grant and during the summer of 2001 digitizing of the collection began under the direction of Ms. Cindy Seaman with technical support from Mr. Roger Kimpland. Three educational technology students were hired to do the work of digitizing the collection, creating a database of the documents, producing a CD-ROM set, and assisting with the creation of the project web site. Ms. Waters, who worked on the prototype and was one of the educational technology students, is also degreed in history. The work was undertaken in the summer and early fall of 2001.
The collection was separated according to "reach" of the system for plans, maps and drawings that are "reach" related. These were then sorted based on drawing size and then occurrence within the "reach". Mechanical drawings, boats, scows, reach profiles, bowstring bridges, and an appraisal book (1947) comprise subsets of documents within the collection. 
One of the first tasks was to create an inventory of all the documents in .PDF format based on a Microsoft Excel™ spreadsheet. All but the most fragile documents were then scanned on a Contex FSC 5010 scanner that can handle items up to 36 inches wide and almost any length. A representative selection of the documents was then prepared for web access while all of the documents were organized on an eight CD-ROM set. The website was created by Ms. Cindy Seaman, the project director.
The inventory section of the web provides a listing of all the documents in the collection with an index number, document type, description, and date (if any). The inventory is used to identify documents that may be available digitally only on the CD-ROM set.
The "Reaches" link on the home page takes the user to a menu for the 12 segments of the system. On the right side of the page are links to specialty documents and the appraisal book.
Selecting a specific reach will display the page for that reach.
The display consists of a sampling of thumbnail images of the documents with information about each including the map number, description, and file size. The file size is included to give the user some idea about how long the file will take to download and display if the user decides to access the full sized image. Typically, MODEM access transfers data at 3K +/- per second. A 240K file, then, will take 80 seconds. Broadband download time is negligible.
The appraisal book is a very interesting document. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the canal system in 1947, an assessment was done to determine the value of each property. These properties are presented in tabular format within the web site. Many are hyperlinked to photographs of the listed property.
By late September 2001, the project was nearly completed. Documents at risk for years in a shed had been digitized. They were readily available on the Internet. The collection was no longer in jeopardy. The canal system itself did not fair so well. A combination of factors led to its demise.
The first factor was the devastating effects of periodic floods. Normally a very placid river, the Schuylkill has endured a series of "freshets" as historian Montgomery called the floods. Floods were recorded in 1757, 1786, and 1822 prior to the creation of the navigation system. These did little damage despite the volume of water that was unleashed. This was mainly due to the minimal occupied property along the river. The flood of 1786 was known as the "Pumpkin Freshet" because of the large number of pumpkins that were swept into the river from the farms. Once the navigation system was established, however, flooding would be very expensive. Flooding occurred in 1841, 1850, 1862 and 1869.  Each time massive repairs were needed.
Competition from railroad eroded the commercial viability of the Schuylkill Navigation System. Chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1833, the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company gradually supplanted the waterway.  Indeed, many of the canal maps show the railroad immediately adjacent to it. By 1917, the area around Front and Penn Streets in Reading was a tangle of transportation networks. Both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Philadelphia and Reading Railway serviced the area.  This location was an interchange point between the two railroads.
Finally in 1931 the Schuylkill Navigation System ceased to exist. It was a victim of nature, transportation competition, and the Great Depression. In a real sense technological obsolescence reduced its profitability. Reed notes that the canal boats that were docked below the Penn Street Bridge were dismantled by destitute Reading citizens and used for firewood in the 1930s. 
Beyond the obvious teaching value of the collection for transportation history and, of course, the educational value of the project itself to the project team participants, several of the documents contain glimpses of historical events that took place in the vicinity of the system. There is an inset on map 8-108, "Plan Showing the Schuylkill Navigation Through the Borough of Reading in the year 1825," showing the renaming of streets in the city from Duke, Prince, King, Queen, etc. to numbered streets. It would appear that Reading wanted to eliminate its colonial connection to royalty. Map A-8 is more dramatic. The map maker included selected highlights of the Revolutionary War encampment at Valley Forge and recalled the ride of George Roberts who bought news of the British evacuation of Philadelphia in 1778. 
Maps from the Schuylkill Navigation System collection were merged with other maps and used in a web-based lesson to consider urban ecology and how it changes over time.  Additional educational applications will surely emerge in time as information about the project is disseminated. The immediate educational benefit was found in the project itself. The students involved with the project gained technical experience, teamwork skills, and demonstrated pride in workmanship with a remarkable sense of dedication. The author learned great deal from Ms. Linda Waters, Mr. Jose Acuapa-Fabiani, and Ms. Danielle Niblick. There were significant educational outcomes of the Schuylkill Navigation System project at Reading Area Community College and there will be more to follow.
1. Morton L Montgomery, History of Berks County, Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richards, 1886. Electronic version. Retrospect Publishing, 2001), pp. 2, 52. (hereafter, Montgomery, History of Berks County).
2. "Site of Reading Sold to Penns in 1748 for $2,259.90, but a Single Dollar Bought More Those Days." 1748 Map of Reading, PA. Reading Eagle, 28 June 1925. Clipping.
3. Montgomery, History of Berks County, p.427. For discussion of improvements, Montgomery cites the Pennsylvania Gazette, 24 March 1760.
4. "A Short History of the Schuylkill Navigation System," Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/history/history.html). Hereafter, "A Short History."
5. Herbert P. Reed, "The story of the Union Canal and Schuylkill Canal" Unpublished (typewritten), pp.14-16.
6. Photographs of canal workers. C. Howard Hiester Canal Center, Berks County Heritage Center. Digital versions used for slide presentation by the author.
7. The Schuylkill Navigation System map collection is a remarkable record of the industries that were serviced by the canal. See also: Montgomery, History of Berks County, passim.
8. "A Short History".
9. "About the Project." Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/about/about.html). 2001
10. "Reaches." Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/reaches/reaches.html). 2001
11. Montgomery. History of Berks. pp. 430-432. An 1860 map of the canal through Reading has a line demarking the 1869 flood. Reading Area Community College, Schuylkill Navigation System Collection. The extent of the 1850 flood can be seen in the photograph of the Penn Street Bridge that was taken during it. See: Bridge Flood Photograph, Pennsylvania State Archives, MG 432, Rothermel Collection of Covered Bridges, 1941, 1951-53, 1959. The flood line approximates the flood line of Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972. See: Reading, PA, Eagle, 6/23/72. "Aerial photo taken from West Reading looking eastward across the Schuylkill River toward Reading. Picture taken 6-2372, PHMC# 103, Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-210, Box 15, 5-0115, (Collected by J. Kingston).
12. James L. Holton, The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. 1, (Laury's Station, PA: Garrigues House, 1989), p. 5.
13. Map of the Pennsylvania and P&RR Railroads at Front and Penn Streets, Reading, PA, National Archives and Records Administration, Cartographic Branch, Records of the ICC, Bureau of Valuation, Records of the P&RR, Map number V26P/5. For a discussion of the value of the ICC Bureau of Valuation records, see: David Pfeiffer,"Researching Railroad Records at NARA." The Record: News from the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives: Washington, DC, 1996, pp. 27-28. For a detailed analysis of P&RR holdings in Reading, PA in 1917, see: Russell Chadwick and John M. Lawlor, Jr., "The Wealth of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company: The Interstate Commerce Commission Valuation of 1917," Reading Company Historical and Technical Society, 1997.
14. Herbert P. Reed, "The story of the Union Canal and Schuylkill Canal", unpublished (typescript), p. 16.
15. Map of the Valley Forge area. Schuylkill Navigation System Project, Reading Area Community College. Map A-8 (Found under Reach 1, Reach Profiles option).
16. John M. Lawlor, Jr., "Land Use and Urban Development." (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/faculty/lawlor/rdg_hist/rdg_maps.htm)
"About the Project." Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/about/about.html). 2001
"Aerial photo taken from West Reading looking eastward across the Schuylkill River toward Reading. Picture taken 6-2372. ReadingEagle, 6/23/72. PHMC# 103, Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-210, Box 15, 5-0115, (Collected by J. Kingston).
Bridge Flood Photograph. Pennsylvania State Archives, MG 432, Rothermel Collection of Covered Bridges, 1941, 1951-53, 1959.
Chadwick, Russell, and Lawlor,John M., Jr., "The Wealth of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company: The Interstate Commerce Commission Valuation of 1917," Reading Company Historical and Technical Society, 1997.
Holton, James L. The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. 1. Laury's Station, PA: Garrigues House, 1989.
Lawlor, John M. Jr. "Land Use and Urban Development." (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/faculty/lawlor/rdg_hist/rdg_maps.htm)
Map number V26P/5. National Archives and Records Administration. Cartographic Branch, Records of the ICC, Bureau of Valuation, Records of the P&RR,
Map of the Valley Forge area. Schuylkill Navigation System Project, Reading Area Community College. Map A-8
Morton L Montgomery, Morton L. History of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richards, 1886; electronic reprint ed., Retrospect Publishing, 2001.
Pfeiffer, David."Researching Railroad Records at NARA." The Record: News from the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives. Washington,DC: 1996.
Photographs of canal workers. C. Howard Hiester Canal Center, Berks County Heritage Center.
"Reaches." Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/reaches/reaches.html). 2001
Read, Herbert P. "The story of the Union Canal and Schuylkill Canal" Unpublished. (typewritten). 1974.
"Short History of the Schuylkill Navigation System," Schuylkill Navigation Maps at Reading Area Community College. (http://www.racc.cc.pa.us/library/canal/history/history.html).
"Site of Reading Sold to Penns in 1748 for $2,259.90, but a Single Dollar Bought More Those Days." 1748 Map of Reading, PA. Reading Eagle, 28 June 1925.
John Lawlor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org