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The canal that made Pittsburgh great

In the mid-1800s, the Pennsylvania Canal saved the city. In 1987, archaeologists saved canal artifacts found on the North Side. Now is the time to give the stones and timber a proper home at the new PNC Park.

Sunday, May 16, 1999

By Robert J. Feikema

They came to celebrate the birth of their field of dreams. Exuberant fans lined the bridge to honor Roberto Clemente. Politicians crowded the stage to claim credit. The media gushed as lasers lit the sky. Ground was broken for the Pirates' new PNC Park.


Robert J. Feikema, a human services administrator, lives in Mt. Lebanon. His e-mail address is


Garbage litters the ground at what I call the "old PNC park" -- the "Pittsburgh Northside Canal park." No heroes are honored. No politician stakes his claim. When the sun sets it turns pitch black. The only dreams on this field are of the homeless people, curled up between the cold stones. Admission is free through the opening in the chain link fence.

Known to only a handful of Pittsburghers, the site contains, in the words of local historical archaeologist Ron Carlisle, "the greatest archaeological find since the uncovering of Fort Pitt" -- the stones from Lock No. 4 of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.

Lock No. 4 was dug up on the North Side in 1987 during construction of I-279 North. Archaeologists carefully excavated and tagged over 200 huge cut stones, a wooden gate, ironwork, wood planking and foundation timbers. They hoped to reconstruct the lock somewhere along the river for the public to visit.

Instead, the stones and a few odd timbers rest in "old PNC Park" -- a 500-square-yard lot along Merchant Street below the National Aviary, just a few blocks from the new PNC Park.

One hundred and seventy years ago, these stones helped realize the wildest dream -- a canal across some of the most rugged terrain in the nation. The Pennsylvania Canal generated as much excitement as today's stadiums. It accomplished what the stadiums only purport to do: It saved Pittsburgh.

We ought to find a way to save the canal in modern memory.

In the early 1800s, Pittsburgh's status as the Gateway to the West was in jeopardy. Trade and travel were bypassing Pittsburgh, using the National Road from Baltimore to Wheeling or the Erie Canal across New York state. Most ominously, in 1825, the Ohio Legislature authorized building a canal from Cleveland to Portsmouth on the Ohio River. As a center of commerce, Pittsburgh would soon be irrelevant.

Pittsburghers had clamored for a canal for years. Philadelphians, who would have to finance it, resisted. (Some things never change.) Finally, they gave in -- not out of brotherly love, but because they were losing business to the ports of New York and Baltimore. Philadelphia needed the canal as much as Pittsburgh.

In 1826, the state Legislature authorized construction of the Pennsylvania Canal; eight years later it was open for travel across the entire length of the commonwealth. Traversing Western Pennsylvania's forbidding topography required a number of engineering feats: Cutting through the two deepest gorges east of the Mississippi River; building a series of 10 inclines to carry canal boats on rail cars over the mountains between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown; digging 1000-foot long canal tunnels through Bow Ridge on the Conemaugh River and under Grant's Hill in Pittsburgh; building the first railroad tunnel in the United States at Staple Bend; and constructing the first suspension bridge in the United States, designed by John Roebling of Brooklyn Bridge fame. (Torn down following the canal's demise, the bridge was an aqueduct, carrying the canal channel across the Allegheny River into Downtown Pittsburgh. It landed in town near today's convention center.)


It all worked. There was no doubt about it. Pittsburgh thrived. Goods and travelers crowded the city again. The population exploded, surpassing Baltimore and Cleveland. Warehouses clustered around the canal basin at 11th Street between Penn and Liberty, creating the Strip District. The canal fostered the iron industry in the city, enabling Pittsburgh to grow into a Big Steel town.

By midcentury, the railroads had replaced the canal. They were faster and didn't freeze in wintertime. The canal was abandoned. Locks were dismantled. The long ditch was filled in, the land around it developed. Memories faded.

Then came the discovery of Lock No. 4.

In 1987, the Committee on Pittsburgh Archaeology and History, a nonprofit citizens group, assumed ownership of the Lock No. 4 artifacts. Over the past 12 years, its members have drawn up plans and pursued proposals for a canal park, meeting with the city, county, neighborhood, foundation and historic preservation groups. But political change, bureaucratic delay, a dearth of funding and a general lack of civic vision stopped the canal where mountains couldn't.

Where can you learn about the canal that saved Pittsburgh?

At the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, you can hear an audiotaped quotation from Charles Dickens' account of traveling on the canal. You'll also see a scale model of the new PNC Park and a wall full of architects' renderings. (Apparently, there's more history in the future than the past.)

But without the canal, there would be no Pirates and no new PNC Park. Pittsburgh would have dried up long ago.

Aside from this historical debt, the new PNC Park literally rests on the canal.

The canal came down beside the Allegheny River from Freeport and ran between Canal and LaCock (named after the first canal commissioner) streets on the North Side. Just past Federal Street, the canal turned left and headed for the Allegheny River, right under the site of the new ballpark. Lock No. 1 would rest beneath right field. Lock No. 2 would be under home plate. Runners to first base would tread on top of the old towpath, deep below.

They plan to cover new PNC Park with stone instead of brick. A good choice. Stone lends strength and dignity to a structure. If the contractors need some stones, I know of a couple hundred over at "old PNC park."

They could be arranged as a splendid entranceway or public sculpture commemorating the vision and determination of a previous generation of Pittsburghers. The same enterprising spirit that led to the groundbreaking for the new PNC Park was present 170 years ago, on the same site.

That spirit still resides in the canal stones of "old PNC park." What better rock to build a stadium on?

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