By Andy Medici
The Pittsburgh Public Works lot on Ridge Avenue doesn’t draw a lot of attention. Moveable barricades line one area of the compound alongside a flatbed hitch, about a dozen picnic tables, and sections of chain link fence.
In a corner near a clump of trees lies a pile of stones. Overgrown with weeds and plants, it’s hard to make out the shapes of the cut stones. But these stones, excavated more than 20 years ago and tagged with metal discs bolted into the stone by a master mason, are the last remaining remnants of the Allegheny City section of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.
Excavated in the summer of 1987, these pieces of the lift and weigh locks were pulled from the ground ahead of the new I-279 highway. At that time, community groups met with various specialists from all around the tri-state area, including activists and archaeologists, all working to preserve a piece of Northside history.
The canal, built in 1828, was Pennsylvania’s response to the Erie Canal finished in 1825 and an effort to move goods quickly through the western region of Pennsylvania.
After attempts to reassemble the lock ground to a halt, the stones were moved to Ridge Avenue until they were needed. The intervening time saw several plans to use the stones come and go, but now a plan by PennDOT will use some of the stones as part of a historic walking path.
Dan Cessna, the district executive for PennDOT District 11, said that the plans to use the canal stones will be developed along with the overall plans to reconstruct the Route 28 corridor from East Ohio Street to the near suburbs. The actual construction for the project will probably begin in early 2010.
“We do intend to place several canal stones along the trail that already exists near 28,” Cessna said. “We’re also going to be placing interpretive signing.” He described the signing as something that would include pictures and the story of the Allegheny Canal.
But PennDOT may not use all the stones for the project. Cessna said that they would pick several stones that are representative of the whole, and they would pick based on overall safety. The stones are usually around three to five feet long and about two feet wide and weigh several hundred pounds.
“There are some that, if featured correctly, would have people sitting on them,” Cessna said. The project is still in the planning stages, so more specific details are not available right now. Cessna said that as the project drew closer, there would be more substantive plans.
However, some of the stones have already been taken from the lot and used in other projects around the city. A few of the stones line a small walking trail under the shadow of the 7th Street bridge and others were used to separate parking lots from the River Heritage Trail, which runs along the Northside on the bank of the Allegheny River.
Some have even left the Northside. A small park in the Southside, at the intersection of 12th Street and East Carson Street, has about 30 canal stones lining a large flower bed. The stones are distinct, as they contain metallic tags listing their number, which were placed on them by the master mason when they were removed from the ground.
From their rediscovery to their possible use by PennDOT, the stones have been a part of several different plans, but the difficulty of reconstructing a canal lock and of finding an appropriate place to do so, have hampered efforts to move them out of their current home.
A long and winding road
Before PennDOT District Engineer Henry Nutbrown even began that phase of the I-279 project in the summer of 1987, he knew that they would encounter some elements of the Allegheny Canal. The work was proceeding apace in what was a hot, dry summer.
When workers began digging the path for the new highway near the railroad bridge, they found the pieces. Work stopped immediately.
PennDOT brought in their environmental impact team as well as archaeologists and specialists from the University of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and surrounding areas, to determine how to best preserve the find.
“We got the right people involved,” Nutbrown said. “It was a big project and there was a lot to do. It had a big impact.”
Nutbrown, now retired, remembered bringing people from the office on a Saturday and showing them the canal remnants.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime find,” Nutbrown said. “It was one of the biggest projects in the area for a long time and to have events take place like this adds to it.”
The stones drew the attention of the communities around the I-279 project and sparked an effort to save a piece of Pittsburgh history.
Barbara Burns, a community activist involved with the East Allegheny Community Council, Deutschtown Merchants Association, and many other groups, helped take on the task of protecting the stones after their rediscovery.
Out of town at the time they were unearthed, Burns got a phone call. Her first response to hearing about the stones: “Well obviously we have to save it,” Burns said at the time. When she came back to the Northside she became one of the leading advocates of the lock reconstruction.
“We were trying to find a place for what could have been a representative display of the lock, so that people could truly understand what this piece of early history was,” Burns said. When the wood was brought to the lot, Burns would go down at lunchtime and water it, to make sure it wouldn’t crack and splinter. Eventually the wood was taken away to a secure storage facility.
Burns said that there were other cities interested in the stones for their own canal reconstruction, but the community resisted such efforts, instead focusing on trying to find their own location.
Ron Carlisle, an archaeologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, authored the 1994 book Canals and American Cities, with a portion devoted to efforts he himself witnessed to save the lock and canal pieces.
He wrote at the time that “The discovery of these archaeological features established an important local preservation challenge and opportunity, not only to record the canal features but to carefully dismantle, remove and conserve selected architectural elements for eventual reconstruction in an urban canal park.”
Carlisle said that this effort was “vital for interpreting the canal’s significance in Pennsylvania history.”
The effort was revived again under Mayor Tom Murphy during the construction of PNC Park in late 1999 and early 2000. He called in Christine Davis Consultants to see if it was feasible to reconstruct the lock within the new park.
Davis had been involved in talks to save the stones in 1987, and tried to find a way to incorporate the unique needs of a historic reconstruction with the idea of a sleek, brand-new park.
“People had been trying to figure out how to reuse these stones,” Davis said. “But it wouldn’t be the right opportunity to use the stones at the new park.”
She said there weren’t enough materials remaining to place the canal within the construction, but that the lock and canal stones should be used in some way.
“We would love to see the stones used in some way. They are so significant and important to the City,” Davis said. She also said that time had worn on some of the remaining materials, and that as more time had passed it was harder to reuse what was left. “If they could have been reused right away that would have been best.”
In fact, the City approved a piece of land for use in the lock reconstruction that would be part of a river-park development. A site study was completed in 1990, but plans fell through with a lack of funds and space.
The new plans for the stones has Burns hopeful, but at the same time, cautious. “I would hope it was done in the spirit of the Heinz History Center and that people would have a sense of history and scale,” Burns said. “We would hope that they would do some sort of representation of the lock and canal.”
Keeping up with the Joneses – The Birth of the Pennsylvania Canal
Canals were all the rage in the 1820s. New York had completed the Erie Canal in 1825, and neighboring states were worried that New York would soon ascend to dominance in the region. Maryland and Pennsylvania began debating the merits of a canal system, and Pennsylvania merchants began demanding it as a way to promote trade.
Ron Carlisle’s book credits the birth of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal with three pieces of legislation between 1824 and 1827. The canal would link with various railroads within the state to connect Pittsburgh and Cleveland with areas further east.
According to documents from GAI Consultants Inc. in their 1987 survey of the canal, the location of the end of the canal was fiercely debated between residents of Pittsburgh and what was then Allegheny City [now our Northside], Pittsburgh’s competitive neighbor north of the Allegheny River.
The original concept would have had the canal end in Allegheny City, but a compromise routed the canal through an aqueduct across the Allegheny and down to the Monongahela River.
The canal in the Pittsburgh area required four locks to accommodate an uneven terrain, as well as the bridge aqueduct crossing the river. Locks No. 3 and No. 4 were located on the Northside in Allegheny City, along with a “collectors office” building.
The locks were 90 feet by 15 feet and 138 feet long and used water displacement as the method of determining payment.
Boats would enter and be weighed at one lock, and then lifted using the next lock, for their trip across the river and into Pittsburgh. Eventually the growing dominance of railroads during the 1850s rendered the Canal system obsolete and in some areas of Pittsburgh, including the Northside, the canal was filled in and used as the railroad right of way.
By filling in the empty canal, pieces of the locks were better preserved than in many other areas of the country, where canals were torn out and replaced in a more haphazard development.
According to the documents created by GAI Consultants, Inc., and their lead archaeologist John F. Bauman, “These fragments of this once important complex are all that remain to inform present and future generations of the physical configuration and operation function of the liftlock and weighlock system in Pittsburgh.”
“Since this was one of the earliest, if not the first, major hydrological engineering project in Western Pennsylvania, it is a significant historical resource.”
Burns noted that the lock and canal stones are a piece of recovered history at a time when thousands of people and businesses lost their own personal history to the massive construction project I-279.
“There was a huge physical and human impact of this highway in the neighborhood,” Burns said. “Nobody can come back to where their grandparents lived or where they grew up. They can’t even stand on the same ground.”
Burns summed up the history of the canal and the I-279 project that uncovered it in one sentence.
“The canal and the lock were symbolic of the price that people paid for this new highway.”