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Before any dam was constructed on the Susquehanna, the lower end of the river was rocky and quite shallow in most areas, rendering it virtually unnavigable. For the river to be widely utilized for industry and trade in the growing 19th century, the 233-foot drop from Columbia to the bay had to be overcome. In the 1830s, merchants in Baltimore campaigned for the funding of a canal.


Authorization for the construction of a canal along the Susquehanna River from Columbia/Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, to the Maryland-Pennsylvania line was provided by an act of Pennsylvania legislature, April 15, 1835. Maryland had already chartered a canal, under the incorporated name of the Tidewater Canal Company, to run from the Pennsylvania line to Havre de Grace, Maryland. The two canals were united under the name of the Susquehanna Canal Company or, more commonly, the Susquehanna-Tidewater Canal Company.
Originally Middletown was to be the start of the canal, but in 1828, canal officials changed the starting point to Columbia where the canal would interchange with a railroad from Philadelphia. The Columbia canal closed in 1901. A canal basin at Columbia offered an outlet lock to the river and it was here that workers shifted freight between a boat and railroad cars and let boats in and out of the lock. Passenger boats were designed in sections so for a trip west workers would assemble the parts into one boat and launch it in the basin, and eastbound boats would be hauled on special railroad cars.
Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal opened Central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia and Baltimore. The forty-five-mile canal, most active around 1870, was 50-feet wide, about 6-feet deep, and had a system of 28 lift locks. River vessels carried coal, iron, lumber, and grain. Indeed, from its office in Wrightsville, passengers could purchase a ticket to Liverpool, England. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was one such passenger.

The canal was completed in 1840 and by 1855, over 8,000 vessels used the canal. However, the popularity of rail travel soon threatened the system. By 1894, the canal system was abandoned.





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