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By STEPHANIE BOMBAY sbombay@leader.net

Sunday, January 30, 2000     Page: 1B

In November 1830 the canal boat Wyoming left its home in Shickshinny for West Nanticoke.
    Built by John Keens, the vessel was being towed to West Nanticoke, where it would become the first boat to travel on the newly constructed North Branch Canal System. In West Nanticoke, the Wyoming was loaded with coal as water was released into the channel. Unfortunately, a porous canal bed and poor water flow hampered the inaugural event and the boat was transferred to the nearby Susquehanna River for its journey south. The delay led the Wyoming to become trapped in the frozen river during its return trip, according to Terry K. Wood's ``Anthracite and Slackwater,'' a presentation made during the Canal History and Technology Symposium in 1983. On May 14, 1831, Derrick Bird of Wilkes-Barre launched the Luzerne from the West Nanticoke port, Wood said. When the Luzerne, filled with flour, coal and lumber, arrived at Boulton's Wharf in Philadelphia, it was the first boat to travel the 55-mile line from West Nanticoke to Philadelphia. Development of the North Branch System and subsequent extensions were inspired by the success of New York's Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. Canals reached beyond the river's edge and provided shortcuts between natural waterways. They also allowed boats to avoid rocks, reefs and ice in the river. Work on the Main Line, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, began in 1826. At the same time, the Wyoming Valley was producing tons of anthracite coal that was floated in arks down the Susquehanna. In 1828, the state Legislature directed the Canal Commission to locate and construct the North Branch. Rock was blasted with black powder and the earth was broken by horse-drawn plows, then hauled off in wheelbarrows. The canal followed the Susquehanna along the west bank, through Danville, Bloomsburg, Berwick, Beach Haven and West Nanticoke. Boats moved through eight locks along the route. The lock, a walled section of the channel, was used to control water levels. Water to the line was regulated by two dams: the Shamokin Dam in Northumberland and the Widewater Dam in Nanticoke. During its first full year of operation, the canal saw 241 boats carry goods through the toll at Berwick. More than $3,000 in tolls was collected in 1833. In 1834, the Wyoming Division - a 17-mile extension - was added through Hanover Township to Pittston and then to the Lackawanna River.
    The late Benjamin H. Carpenter described the extension in the June 15, 1939, issue of the Wilkes-Barre Record:
The canal followed the Susquehanna River on its east bank in north Wilkes-Barre. It passed over Mill Creek on an aqueduct, and continued between the Hollenback Cemetery and the river. The Luzerne County Courthouse now stands where the canal basin once lay.
In Hanover Township, boats followed Solomon Creek toward Back Street in Wilkes-Barre. The canal cut inland making local lumberyards and collieries accessible by boat.
``It was a busy institution from the Lackawanna River to the south from the day of its opening,'' said a Luzerne County historian, recounted in Wood's 1983 presentation. ``It was the great outlet for the vast wealth rapidly developing in the valley, the outlet to the world's trade and commerce.'' Years later, the North Branch Extension was extended north to Athens. But the canal was the key to the valley's trade for only a short time as railroad tracks began to stretch across the state.
    In April 1858 the state sold all branch canals. Many canals were purchased by railroad companies, filled in and used as railroad beds. However, a private company, The North Branch Canal Co., was formed to continue operation of the North Branch. Although business was intense, profits were small. Most of the revenue was poured back into the company for maintenance. A flood in 1865 caused heavy damage, but the canal was rebuilt, then abandoned in 1872. The northern route was replaced by a railroad line along the bank of the canal.
    The traffic on the original canal from Nanticoke to Northumberland continued until the turn of the century. The last two boats made their way down the canal on Dec. 8, 1900, carrying coal from Nanticoke to Bloomsburg. The line was closed April 11, 1901. But evidence of the line remains in the form of abandoned locks and canal beds throughout Wyoming Valley.
Call Bombay at 829-7292.
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