There was a time in American history when the only modes of transportation were walking, horse or ox power, and waterway navigation. It was during this time that the Schuylkill navigation system played a key role. It carried coal and other commodities from the resource-rich region of Pennsylvania around Schuylkill County to more populated areas to the south, as well as necessities like sugar and cloth to the north. .
Operating between Philadelphia and Port Carbon, the 108-mile path of this unique waterway created a series of 23 canals connecting sections of the Schuylkill River, using 120 locks to handle the 588-foot elevation difference from south to north . Designed by Thomas Oakes and made fully operational in 1825, the Schuylkill Navigation was a complex system that originally included 18 weirs, 17 stone aqueducts, a 450-foot-long tunnel, and 31 lock keepers’ houses.
Among the latter structures is the Leesport Lock House, located about 10 miles north of Reading. It is restored today at 27 East Wall Street, Leesport, as a fine example of its former function. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 after being purchased in 1975 by a coalition of teachers and others from the Schuylkill Valley School District. They formed the Leesport Lock House Foundation and renovated the property for the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
A look at the history of the canals and lock houses
Ryan Strause, volunteer curator of the Leesport Lock House Foundation, recently presented a program for the Heidelberg Heritage Society in Wernersville on this historic structure and its role as part of the Schuylkill navigation system.
Built in 1834 by the Schuylkill Navigation Co., Leesport Lock House sits between Locks No. 36 and No. 37. It is constructed of stone partially covered in roughcast, with two smaller frame sections added in the late 1800s .
Surrounded by a fence with a single walkway providing public access, the basic eight-room structure was atypical of Berks County architecture, Strause said, because it was designed in Philadelphia, where the Schuylkill Navigation Co. was based. It was, however, typical of some other lock houses along this waterway. In fact, some components of nearby Peacock’s Lock House, including its surviving window panes, were salvaged and used in the restoration of Leesport.
The first floor of Leesport’s Lock House has been laid out with three doors to the front of the house. A door opened into the family lounge, also used for the toll. Another led into a hallway accessing the staircase of the house, while the third entered the kitchen. The three bedrooms on the second floor were rented out to travellers. Two finished rooms in the attic – one for the girls and one for the boys – were where the lock keeper’s children slept.
Meals were available at the lock, prepared by the lockmaster’s wife and served in the two wooden additions to the structure. While the riverboat crews cooked and ate on their boats, other canal travellers, such as commercial agents, could book room and meals at the lock and then hire a horse to ride around the countryside to to purchase products or other goods to be shipped. The Schuylkill Valley House Hotel, built by Johan Althouse and located diagonally opposite the lock house, would eventually provide additional accommodation and dining facilities. Althouse had been the first lockkeeper at Leesport; these functions were then taken over by the Menard family, until 1922.
The mules that towed the river boats also needed food and lodging. Strause explained that these animals were the property of the Schuylkill Navigation Co., which arranged livery accommodations for them along the way. One such station for changing mule teams was near Leesport. An elder once told Strause that after the mules – who had spent their working day walking in a straight line towing a heavy riverboat – were released in a corral, they would “go crazy” celebrating freedom of their day’s work.
The river boats along the Schuylkill navigation were made of wood. The original locks could accommodate vessels with a maximum beam of 13 feet. An 1846 renovation of the locks at Schuylkill Navigation would eventually allow accommodation for larger vessels.
Whale oil lamps provided lighting for the crews of river boats and also made these boats visible after dark or in poor visibility. Typically, the channel only operated during daylight hours. However, boat captains can sometimes persuade lock keepers to allow them to pass at other times in return for bartered secondary payments like free coal.
River boats announced their approach to a lock by blowing loudly into the horns of the boats. Some horns were made from conches or animal horns. For those unable to master horns made from these natural materials, there were also artificial horns made from pewter.
Some lock keepers could manage their locks from home, but that was not the case at Leesport, Strause said. A shed at the top of the area between locks 36 and 37 housed the Leesport lock keeper when on duty. There, a footbridge connected the two sides of the lock. Stone steps on either side of Lock No. 36 provided access to the canal itself, where boat crews unhooked or hooked mules that followed the towpath around the locks.
The lock gates were made of wood, chestnut. Wood also covered the sides of a lock, to protect its stone walls, as well as the floor of the lock, allowing it to be cleaned of any accumulated debris. The lock doors themselves resembled today’s wooden runners, with movable open slats to let water in and out of the lock. These sliding slats worked by manually turning a large metal wheel above the lock, which operated a screw mechanism. When closed, the slats form a watertight barrier.
In order for boats to enter or exit the lock, the lock keeper would push the lock gates open or closed on their hinges, using a large arm attached to the top of the gates. Water from a dam in the river flowed into the lock to raise the level of the boat, or out of the lock to lower it. Strause described the canal locks as steps made of water, with the lock gates serving as risers.
Strause indicated that Leesport Locks were “combination locks”, Locks 36 and 37 being formed by sharing the gate between them; the lower lock gate 37 formed the upper lock gate 36. The lower end of the lock 36 was formed by a non-fixed “clamshell” gate. The upper gate of Lock 37 was located under the Kutztown Road Bridge.
Records of the Schuylkill Navigation Co. show the system was at its most successful between 1835 and 1841, but its record tonnage of nearly 2,000,000 tons was reached in 1859. Shortly thereafter, railroads began compete with canals to move goods and passengers more efficiently. Business declined in the early 1900s until 1931 when the Schuylkill Navigation System went out of business.
Leesport Lock House is open to the public monthly on most first Saturdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by appointment.
For more information about the Lock House, visit the Foundation’s Facebook page or call 610-926-5770.