Receding River Offers Peek Back Into History

Valley News Dispatch
27 July 2011
By Michael Aubele

A shallow Kiski River has exposed pieces of history.

Timber beams from a dam used as part of the Pennsylvania Canal in the mid- to late 1800s were easily visible in the riverbed before the heavy rains that swept through late last week and Monday. They sit more than a mile upstream from the Apollo Bridge.

Spanning the width of the river, the timbers supported a "slackwater" dam that pooled enough water for canal traffic to pass through.

Connecting the western side of the state with the eastern side, the canal experienced its peak use from 1835 to about 1870, said Lance Metz, a retired historian who worked at the National Canal Museum in Easton.

"The canal helped bring the various regions of the state together," he said. "It made Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County area a major commerce center."

A patchwork of canals, river sections, locks and dams and other infrastructure, the Pennsylvania Canal was pieced together as construction of its various divisions unfolded, Metz said. Construction didn't start in Pittsburgh and move toward Philadelphia, nor vice versa, he said.

Railroads and the cost of construction and maintenance eventually rendered the canal obsolete, Metz said.

Jack Maguire, a civil engineer and officer with the Saltsburg Area Historical Society in Indiana County, said the Kiski River served as a section of the canal from Leechburg to Apollo.

According to "The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal" by authors Robert McCullough and Walter Leuba, the first dam constructed as part of the canal's western division was in Leechburg. At 27 feet high and 574 feet long, it spanned the width if the Kiski and backed up enough water to create a navigable pool reaching to from Leechburg to the next dam near Apollo.

Neill Andritz, president of the Roaring Run Watershed Association, said the river has been shallow, but not extremely so. Its average depth on Friday, before the rain, was 3 feet in Leechburg, he said.

"It's running about average for the summer months," Andritz said.

Thomas Basista, a former Valley News Dispatch reporter who has begun to research the history of the canal, said last week was the first time he saw the timbers almost completely exposed.

"This is a rare opportunity to get a closer look at how these things were made," said Basista.

Michael Aubele can be reached at or 724-226-4673.