Reliable and affordable transportation of iron to markets was always problematic and was always a key determinant to the success or failure of Roland Curtin’s enterprise (Ref 1). Initially the goods were carried overland on horses and mules or floated on flatboats (arks) via Bald Eagle Creek to the Susquehanna River. Both routes were fraught. Shipments sometimes ended up at the bottom of the river. At least one man drowned.
Canals were a great improvement in transportation prior to the birth of railroads. Development of Pennsylvania’s system of canals started in earnest in 1826, soon after the Erie Canal was completed the previous year (Ref 2).
The West Branch Division of the PA Canal reached Lock Haven in 1835, affording a direct route from there to the mouth of the Susquehanna as it flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Port Deposit, Maryland. Anticipating completion of this project, a group of local entrepreneurs, including Roland Curtin, organized the Bald Eagle & Spring Creek Navigation Company in 1834 (Ref 3). Their purpose was to build a canal linking Bellefonte (and Curtin) to Lock Haven.
Construction of the canal was slow-going and ran into bad economic times. Manual laborers were paid 84 cents a day for 12 hours and accomplished one yard of progress per worker per day (Ref 3). The first parts of the canal, a connector from the West Branch Division Canal to Flemington (built by the State) and the section from Flemington to Howard (built by the private company), were completed in a few years. Then an economic recession hit, and the stretch from Howard to Milesburg was not completed for more than a decade. It wasn’t until 1848 that the Bellefonte spur was ready for business.
When the canal was finally functional along its entire length, 100 pounds of freight could be carried from Bellefonte to Philadelphia for $1.50. The boat made the roundtrip there and back in only 10 weeks.
Alas, flooding destroyed all 28 locks of the canal in 1865. A new day had arrived in any case. The Bald Eagle Valley Railroad was completed in the same year and provided an even better alternative. It took 14 years to build the canal, and it only was functional for 17 years. The shareholders lost big-time, and the Commonwealth felt the larger effects of the collapse of its entire canal system.
1 -- Curtin, Hugh Laird cited in Baum, Jane Curtin: The Roland Curtin Family of Centre County Pennsylvania, 2002, updated 2020.
2 -- Our Documentary Heritage … Pennsylvania Canals – 1846. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Website, 2015.
3 – Brennan, Janet: Centre County Canal. Town & Gown, State College, PA, July, 1979.
4 – The First Report of the President and managers to the Legislature of Pennsylvania and the stock holders. Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company, 1835
Digital ID: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.087265445
Jerry is a retired general surgeon and a new Board Member of the Roland Curtin Foundation. He has Curtin roots extending back to 1831, through four previous generations.